“Time waits for no one … except Roger Federer.”
So said Chris Fowler when Federer went up 5-3 in the decisive fourth set of his semifinal match against Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon on Friday. The 37-year-old would ultimately win the match two games later, besting Nadal 7-6 (3), 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 to advance to the final, where he’ll face world no. 1 Novak Djokovic.
It was the first time Federer and Nadal had played on the grass courts of the All England Club since 2008, when they contested what many fans and pundits consider to be the greatest match of all time. While Friday’s match couldn’t quite recreate the drama of that Dickensian five-hour epic, it provided its fair share of thrills, much like the pair’s semifinal at Roland Garros did a month ago.
The opening frame was tense but unremarkable, with each player dominant on serve. The tiebreaker arrived with a sense of inevitability, and Federer took it with ease. He has now won an astonishing 15 of the 18 tiebreaks he’s played this season. To no one’s surprise, Nadal came back in the second with a vengeance, breaking Federer twice en route to a 6-1 victory. But the elder statesman rebounded in sets three and four, ratcheting his first-serve percentage up above 70% while holding his own in baseline exchanges in a way he rarely has against his Spanish foe.
The knock on Roger Federer — at least in the twilight of his career, and especially against Nadal and Djokovic — has been his inability to convert break points. In the aforementioned 2008 final, he infamously went 1-for-13 on break opportunities. This day, those tables turned, with Federer fighting Nadal off time and again in decisive situations. Up a break in the fifth game of the third set, he fought off three break points to hold. And in the final game of the match — a 12-point thriller that brought the vintage best out of both players — Federer again proved his mettle, shaking off a shanked overhead and three squandered match points before finally closing things out.
Federer was 26 the last time he and Nadal played here, in that 2008 final. Nadal was 22. There was a sense then that we were watching tennis in its ultimate form, that these two players were at their peak — or close to it — and every match they play should be savored and adulated, maybe locked away in a box somewhere to be shown to posterity as evidence of tennis’s zenith. This was when the notion that tennis players decline after the age of 30 was an immutable fact. Between them, Nadal and Federer have now won eight Grand Slam titles past 30. Djokovic has an additional three.
The commentariat has given up on trying to declare when their reign will finally end. But we know it won’t be Sunday, when Djokovic — and the next chapter in the most hotly debated GOAT debate in sports — awaits.