Wimbledon 2019: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal mark 11th anniversary of the greatest match ever with distinct Centre Court gems

Federer and Nadal are on a collision course earlier than normal this Wimbledon; they are projected to meet in the semi-finals. Will we see their brilliance on display at the same time in that match? Will there be a repeat of that 2008 final, with each of them bringing out their absolute best for close to five hours?

Musab Abid July 07, 2019 13:10:42 IST
Wimbledon 2019: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal mark 11th anniversary of the greatest match ever with distinct Centre Court gems
  • Nadal dominated from the start, and his banana forehand came out with unbelievable regularity and precision

  • Federer was slow to start, but soon found his rhythm against Lucas Pouille

  • Federer and Nadal are on a collision course earlier than normal this Wimbledon; they are projected to meet in the semi-finals

How much greatness can a sporting arena hold in a single day? We may have got our answer on Saturday: 80 Grand Slams and 9 Olympic gold medals’ worth of greatness.

Those who had entry into Centre Court on Saturday couldn’t believe their luck when they realised that not only would they get to see Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer back-to-back, but also that the much-talked-about mixed doubles match featuring Serena Williams and Andy Murray would be scheduled as the last match of the day. There was magic in the air all through Saturday on the iconic court; for once, its status was elevated by outside factors rather than its inherent historic legacy.

That the awesome foursome gave the crowd full value for their money can hardly be debated. Murray and Williams were just as quirky and fun as everyone expected, with the Scot’s craftiness perfectly complementing the American’s power. But the main course was served by those two old warhorses who had scripted that unforgettable match on this same day 11 years ago.

It was a Fedal show once again, if only at different times and in different matches.

First, it was Nadal’s turn to light up the court, and he wasted no time in asserting his dominance over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The Frenchman looked a little out of sorts, especially with his serve, but he might have had a chance of regaining his rhythm against any other player. No such luck against Nadal; the Spaniard was on to every second serve in a flash, squeezing the life out of Tsonga with his relentless groundstrokes.

Of special interest to the crowd was one particular groundstroke — the banana forehand curled down the line. At Roland Garros, we have become accustomed to seeing Nadal hit that shot with stunning regularity, but at Wimbledon, it has been a little hard to spot over the last few years. There was no mistaking it on Saturday (6 July); Tsonga kept coming in on his inside-out forehand, and kept getting burned by the Nadal Special.

Wimbledon 2019 Roger Federer Rafael Nadal mark 11th anniversary of the greatest match ever with distinct Centre Court gems

Rafael Nadal's stunning groundstrokes wowed the spectators. AP

The sheer geometric improbability of the shot still amazes me, and I presume everyone else in the world too. I was seated diagonally across the right edge of the court, which meant that when Nadal was on the far side and pushed wide on his forehand wing, he would be partially obscured from vision by the umpire’s chair. You can imagine how unreal his banana forehand seemed from that angle; I couldn’t see the player hitting the shot, but I could see the ball thudding across the turf at warp speed, coming out of nowhere.

If ever there was a candidate for a ghost shot, Nadal’s banana forehand would have to be it. It was hardly a wonder that the crowd’s reaction was to sharply draw breath every time he hit it. Before they could applaud or appreciate the shot, they first had to register that what they were seeing was actually true.

A few moments after Nadal destroyed Tsonga, Federer took the court to face another talented Frenchman, Lucas Pouille. With the Swiss, the first striking thing as always was how partisan the crowd was towards him. I reached the court a little late for this match, and as I waited outside the entrance for a changeover with just the crowd noise for company (you aren’t allowed to enter the court except during a changeover), I had little trouble telling who had won each point despite not being able to see anything.

Federer winning a point was followed by a raucous burst of cheering that lasted well over 10 seconds. On the other hand, Pouille winning a point was met with polite, half-hearted applause that died out almost instantly. The size of the task before Pouille was evident just through the sounds created by the proceedings.

But Pouille was more than up to the task. He was actually the better player for the majority of the first set, and had multiple break points to surge ahead. Federer, as is his wont, saved them all and took the first chance that came his way, stealing a set that most thought he had no right to win.

That was his cue to bring out his full range of strokes. There’s nothing quite like a relaxed and comfortable Federer to make tennis seem like an art rather than an athletic pursuit.

Like Nadal, Federer’s genius was most starkly visible in his passing shots. But unlike Nadal, Federer didn’t wow us with the belief-defying geometry of his shots; instead, he made us wonder whether he was hitting the ball with the racquet or making soft, sweeping strokes with a paintbrush that were somehow creating winners at will.

Wimbledon 2019 Roger Federer Rafael Nadal mark 11th anniversary of the greatest match ever with distinct Centre Court gems

Roger Federer was typically pleasing to the eye, and his silken strokes had a shade of divinity about them. AP

There was one crosscourt forehand pass in the second set that seemed more like a caress than a tennis shot, and yet Pouille was nowhere near it. Another followed on the backhand side, this time Federer’s racquet coming down at the very last second and hijacking a point that Pouille thought he had won. And finally, there was a forehand drive volley with the Swiss so hopelessly out of position that he seemed like a madman for even attempting it. Naturally, it produced another winner.

Federer was in full and fabulous flow for much of the second and third sets, and the crowd seemed like they were in a trance. Every time Federer made a particularly magical play, they let out a deep and slow ‘Whoa!’; I also heard several ‘Oh my Gods' throughout the match. You could be forgiven for thinking you were at a religious ceremony rather than a tennis match.

Nadal made the crowd question how his tennis was possible; Federer made them seek divinity. The two GOATs were in their element one after the other on Saturday, producing excellence in their own inimitable ways, and all we could think of was how lucky we were to be witnessing it first-hand. This was the quintessential treat for any tennis fan, and it was fitting that it came on the last day of Week 1 of the 2019 Championships.

Federer and Nadal are on a collision course earlier than normal this Wimbledon; they are projected to meet in the semi-finals. Will we see their brilliance on display at the same time in that match? Will there be a repeat of that 2008 final, with each of them bringing out their absolute best for close to five hours?

Probably not; both Federer and Nadal are well past their prime, and can’t be expected to last five hours at this age. But we know that every once in a while they are still capable of turning back the clock and creating moments of sheer magic, as they did on Saturday.

If we are lucky, it will happen again on the same day, even if not in the same match. That’s still better than just about everything else in the world.

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