Federer and Nadal’s Wimbledon Rematch Showed Just How Alike the Two Greats Have Become
When Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal walked onto Centre Court at Wimbledon on Friday, the sight was at once familiar and strange—strange, in part, for seeming so familiar. The two men were meeting for the fortieth time, the fourteenth at a major. They had met only five weeks before, in the semifinals of the French Open. Nadal had run away with that one, but that was to be expected, given that the match was happening on clay. The win improved Nadal’s record against Federer to 24–15—though Federer had won their previous six matches. And now they were meeting at Wimbledon, where Federer has won eight titles to Nadal’s two. The last time they had faced each other there was in 2008, in what many consider the greatest match ever played. Federer was twenty-six then, and Nadal twenty-two; now they are thirty-seven and thirty-three, respectively. They were seeded two and three in this tournament, behind Novak Djokovic, rather than one and two, as they had been then. They have less hair than they used to. In 2008, the match had seemed to represent a passing of the torch or a changing of the guard—pick your favorite cliché. Except the torch wasn’t passed, and the guard didn’t change: instead, what we got, in the years to come, was a long, incredible rivalry. One that has gone on so long that, these days, it can seem that tennis is caught in a time warp.
In the days leading up to Friday’s match, there was a great deal of talk about that match in 2008—the replays of old points on TV seemed, at times, to overwhelm the coverage of tennis that was actually happening in the present. It was irresistible: old footage of the early rain on that day, and then the fade into twilight; the dramatic rallies and momentum swings. As for any new analysis, it was mostly halfhearted. What was there left to say? Federer, after he won on Wednesday and knew who his next opponent would be, said, “Well, we have a lot of information on Rafa, and so does he about us. You can either dive into tactics and all that stuff like mad for two days, or you’re just going to say, ‘You know what? It’s grass-court tennis, and I’m going to come out there and play attacking tennis.’ And, if he can defend that, that’s too good. And, if he can’t, well, then, that’s good for me.”
Nadal’s and Federer’s careers are intertwined now—they form a tiny ecosystem, in which each of them has forced the other to change. It was once easy to caricature the stylistic differences between them, and, although the contrast remains, there has also been convergence. Nadal hits that heavy hooking forehand and can still run for days, but he comes into net more often, and, in the past couple of years, he has developed a brutal serve. Federer still floats into that fluid forehand with the long extension, serves with perfect precision, and plays with invention. But, assisted by a bigger racquet face, he drives his backhand hard, making it less of a liability.
On Friday, then, it was no surprise when the first set favored both servers: aces and classic 1–2 patterns. There were forays to net, and long rallies—most notably on Federer’s break point at 4–3, which lasted twenty-one shots, with Nadal’s topspin forehand bouncing higher and higher, and Federer fighting it off with his one-hander up around his shoulders, until finally the Swiss player blinked. It was the only real opening on either man’s serve in the first set, which went to a tiebreaker. There were more fireworks: Nadal running down a Federer volley and flicking his backhand to drop deep in the corner, an impossible get; Federer flying in on his forehand. When there were errors, they were of the smallest margins—lines missed by millimetres, ground strokes rolling off the tape.
Federer came away with the first set, and the match seemed on its way to becoming another classic. As the second began, each player ratcheted up the pressure on the other’s serve. Federer exploited his superior timing to take the return early and put Nadal on his back foot; Nadal’s intensity rose to a pitch that only he seems capable of. Federer was hitting about twice as many winners as Nadal, following his aggressive game plan, but Nadal was an unbreakable force; he came away with the match’s first break.
Then something unfamiliar happened: Federer fell apart. The errors came fast, and Nadal started toying with him. He took the set, 6–1. Federer had won only fifteen of the set’s forty-five points. But another swerve was in store. Federer regained his form on his serve and rediscovered his forehand, and Nadal struggled to break. Federer took the third set, 6–3. In the fourth and final set, Federer’s ground strokes, unexpectedly, allowed him to outlast Nadal in rallies. He took the final set, 6–4. Was it revenge for 2008? Not really. But that wasn’t the point.
Meetings between Federer and Nadal were once almost crude in their symbolism: brute force versus elegance, right versus left, passion versus cool. Now those old story lines feel a little silly. Even the debate over which player is the greatest of all time can seem a little off point (and, besides, Djokovic may have something to say about that). The more they play, and the more they distance themselves from almost everyone else, the more they seem to share. Most notably, they have in common a calmness under incredible pressure, a mental fortitude that others can’t match, and an ability to recover, physically and emotionally, even mid-game. On Friday, they even shared in the ebbs and flows of the match.
However high the level was for stretches of the match, it wasn’t a classic—not quite, no matter how much we may have wanted or expected it to be. But, like all the matches between these two men, it offered a chance to watch two players who have made each other, improbably, almost impossibly, improve, in order to keep pace with the other. The pressure, at this point, is off, or should be. Their semifinal was one more data point in their long rivalry, not a definitive showdown. It didn’t decide who is the best ever, or even who is the best in the world right now. (That title belongs to the man whom Federer will play in the final, on Sunday, Djokovic.) Toward the end of the fourth set, as I watched Nadal fend off four match points—in an astonishing stretch that matched the level that he and Federer showed more than a decade ago—I found myself simply submitting to each shot, without worrying what it meant in a larger sense. They were just playing grass-court tennis, and we had the privilege just to watch.