The most celebrated rivalry in modern men’s tennis is becoming a habit again.
After nearly two years of not playing each other, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will meet for the second time in five weeks when they face off Friday in the Wimbledon semifinals.
Federer finished his quarterfinal first Wednesday, rallying to defeat Kei Nishikori, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4, 6-4, on Centre Court. Nadal joined him soon after, defusing the big serve of American Sam Querrey to win, 7-5, 6-2, 6-2, on No. 1 Court.
Friday’s match will be the 40th meeting for Federer and Nadal, and it will be their first at Wimbledon since the 2008 final, which is on nearly every short list of tennis’s greatest matches and has inspired books and a documentary.
Nadal finished off that five-set classic in near darkness. Flash bulbs were required to chronicle the trophy ceremony on Centre Court. The match was widely viewed as a passing of the torch, the long-dominant Federer, then 26, ceding his spot to the irresistible youth of a 22-year-old Nadal.
That was how it had previously worked in men’s tennis: Topple the king and assume the throne. But 11 years later, it is clear that was not the right read of the situation.
Reality has turned out to be much richer, much more layered.
Federer, 37, and Nadal, 33, have continued to push each other, contending for longer than even they could have imagined when they last traded topspin forehands and compliments at the All England Club.
Both have amassed plenty more titles and plenty more millions. Both have had dips and revivals. Both had to adjust, with varying degrees of grace, to the emergence of Novak Djokovic, the defending Wimbledon champion and No. 1 seed, who has a winning record against each of them. He is back on the prowl this year and looking just as menacing as he prepares to play Roberto Bautista Agut in Friday’s other semifinal.
Federer and Nadal, once the seminal figures in men’s tennis, have had to adapt to being part of a Big Four with Andy Murray in the mix, then part of a Big Five with Stan Wawrinka in the mix.
Now they are back to the Big Three — all over 30; all jostling to be viewed someday as the greatest of all time; all head and shoulders above their younger rivals, which is deeply gratifying and a little unsettling.
“I think it’s definitely not a — how do you say? — regular time in tennis in the men’s game,” Federer said, uncharacteristically searching for words Wednesday. “I don’t think we would have thought that Novak, me and Rafa — all of us — were going to be so solid, so dominant for so many years.”
Who could have guessed that they would still be healthy enough, motivated enough and good enough to remain on top of the global tennis ladder?
“It speaks to the greatness of these guys and also speaks to the fact that the younger generation still has a lot to do,” said Tommy Haas, the former star from Germany who faced all three for years and is now the tournament director of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California. “Maybe the younger guys need to be even more determined or maybe take some notes on what these guys are doing differently or come up with some new ideas.”
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this latest Federer-Nadal match is how unremarkable it seems that they are back in the Wimbledon semifinals at this stage of their careers.
“Not only are these two guys still at it, but they are still very much at the peak of their powers,” said Jon Wertheim, author of “Strokes of Genius,” a book about the 2008 Wimbledon final. “Their rivalry still has so much heft, and their passion for the sport hasn’t diminished. They both approach the sport so differently and get to the top of the mountain by such different paths, but here we are.”
Yes, here we still are. And though Nadal has often struggled by his standards at Wimbledon in recent years, he arrived fresh and eager after skipping the early grass-court season after his 12th French Open victory.
The rematch with Federer has looked likely since Nadal solved a problem called Nick Kyrgios in the second round. Both have appeared to gather strength and momentum through the rounds.
“They both know each other so well and are both playing well, so it will most likely be a good one,” said Ivan Ljubicic, one of Federer’s coaches.
That sounds promising because the balance of power was lopsided when they played in the semifinals of the French Open last month. On one of the windiest days in the tournament’s history, with clouds of red clay swirling into their eyes, Nadal was by far the better player, winning, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2.
Federer, vulnerable to Nadal in any conditions at Roland Garros, confessed to feeling powerless. But Friday’s rematch will be played on what Federer considers his turf.
Wednesday’s victory over Nishikori was his 100th singles win at Wimbledon, extending his men’s record.
“It’s not like you’re going, ‘I have to get my 100th, I have to get my 100th,’ every point,” Federer said. “I’m just trying to win the next point and the next game and eventually the match. When you throw your hands up in the air, you are not thinking, ‘100, 100, 100.’ ”
What matters most, of course, is that he has won a record eight singles titles at the All England Club, the most recent coming during his resurgent 2017 season.
Nadal’s two titles came in 2008 and 2010. After that, he did not get past the fourth round at Wimbledon until last year, when Djokovic beat him in an edgy and extraordinary two-day, five-set semifinal.
Nadal is not one to confess to holding a grudge, but he is looking hungry on grass this year. He is returning and defending exceptionally well but also serving effectively, attacking on his groundstrokes and pushing forward in an attempt to shorten the points.
“It’s going to be tough,” Federer said. “Rafa really can hurt anybody on any surface. I mean, he’s that good. He’s not just a clay-court specialist, we know.”
He has proved it many times over, winning three U.S. Open titles and one Australian Open title, all on hard courts.
He has 18 Grand Slam singles titles, just two behind the men’s record, held by Federer. If he eliminates Federer from contention Friday, the chance will be there to narrow the gap to one.
It is hard to believe that Nadal is not thinking about that, but he has been at pains to emphasize that he thinks about it only when asked about it.
“Any of the three of us would like to have more Grand Slams in the end,” he said, including Djokovic. “But on the other hand, both Federer and me have had a career that is better than either of us could have dreamed. I think we see this as a new opportunity for something else in our careers rather than a new opportunity to be comparing ourselves to each other.”
But no matter how subtle the psychology of it all on the inside, comparisons remain inevitable for outsiders. For now, Nadal has a 24-15 edge in head-to-head matches, and Federer has a 2-1 edge at Wimbledon, having defeated Nadal in the 2006 and 2007 finals before losing in the gloaming in 2008.
There will be no need to fret about fading light Friday. Centre Court, like No. 1 Court, is now equipped with a retractable roof and lights.
Much has changed at the All England Club in 11 years, but Federer and Nadal have endured, together.
“I think it’s no coincidence that they are both playing at this advanced age,” Wertheim said. “This living, breathing rivalry prolongs both their careers.”