Before this evening, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal had played 11 times since meeting in the 2009 Australian Open final, a five-set drama that followed the peak of their rivalry, the 2008 Wimbledon final. Seven of those matches ended in straight sets, and none of the other four matches featured a final set closer than 6-4 (two, in fact, were 6-1 scores). The sport’s greatest showcase for years, Roger vs. Rafa had become an unfortunate example of quantity over quality, despite both men remaining at or near the top of the rankings and still winning Grand Slam titles.
They, as they say, were due.
And so maybe it was fitting that in a quarterfinal round, with expectations lessened and the spotlight somewhat diminished, Federer and Nadal turned back the clock, before the emergence of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, with their best match in years. It even took place on a day which saw Djokovic and Murray suffer hard-court defeats—maybe there was something nostalgic in the pleasant August air.
Whatever it was, it brought out arguably the best tennis Federer has played all year. His start was a 180-degree reversal from his dismal opening set against Tommy Haas in the previous round. Federer’s forehand, a shot that’s brought him the best things in tennis and has brought out the best in Nadal, was firing at its lethal potency, singeing the surface and painting the lines. His backhand, though still prone to an unseemly shank, was moving through the court and repelling Nadal’s southpaw forehands. I had thought that a great serving night would be imperative to Federer’s hopes for success, but his groundstrokes, along with some stingy defense, did the job themselves. They made the games pass quickly, and it was clear that Nadal had a challenge on his hands.
Yet nine games into the match, Nadal led 5-4 and held an ominous 0-15 lead. His shots had begun to land a litte deeper, his feet began to move a little faster, and his voice grew a little louder. It was the classic push we’ve seen—and heard—from the Spaniard countless times.
But this time, Federer pushed back. After a crucial hold, Federer took Nadal to 30-40 from 30-0, thanks in part to a down-the-line forehand winner that stopped his rival cold. On the break point, Federer was flawless. It was he, and not Nadal, that targeted the backhand in calculated fashion, and it was Federer who mixed taxing, looping forehands with whistling, flat strikes. After taking a 6-5 lead, Federer consolidated convincingly, finishing the set with an arresting cross-court backhand swipe.
It was Federer at his best, but if Nadal was not at his apex, he was climbing toward it. His tried-and-true tactic against the Swiss wasn’t being implemented regularly, but every service hold—some quick, others a test—kept Nadal’s focus at its essential maximum. Federer’s service return pressure forced Nadal into two tough holds for 4-3 and 5-4, though the former wasn’t without a little good fortune.
At 3-3, 30-30—two points after Nadal was trailing 0-30—Federer showed the same versatility that earned him the decisive break in the first set. He had a chance to earn another potentially devastating break point after a grueling rally, but hit his down-the-line forehand an inch or two wide, as confirmed by Hawk-Eye. It was a huge point and in retrospect was Federer’s best chance to take total control of this contest.
Nadal went on to hold serve, then held strong again—and then made another push. When he broke Federer for the first time all evening—earning him the second set—his yell felt like something usually saved for a match-point celebration. The stakes were undoubtedly raised, even with only a semifinal spot on the line.
Nadal held at love to open the third set, and for the first time in the match, thoughts of past Roger-Rafa clashes—the forgettable ones—crossed my mind. I wondered if Federer, playing at such a high level just minutes earlier, could actually let this one escape in short order if he wasn’t careful. Some may think he did, as evidenced by the 5-7, 6-4, 6-3 scoreline. Once again, these two men couldn't deliver a close concluding set.
But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t compelling. Nadal played at full capacity, exhibiting a sky-high level which at the moment is without peer. He took a 4-1 lead and had break points for 5-1, but Federer’s two holds for 4-2 and 5-3 showed that he believed, all along, that he had a chance to beat the man who hasn’t been beaten on hard courts this year. When he fell behind triple match point, Federer swatted a ball into the net, perhaps for the first time accepting that it was Nadal’s day.
Until he refused to—four times. Federer saved three of Nadal's first four match points with winners, bringing the crowd to a crescendo each time. They were watching two of the game’s greatest playing great tennis and savoring every shot. Only a Nadal winner would do, and when his forehand caught the line—or so it appeared; it was shown to be out, but Federer neglected to challenge the call—a winner was finally determined. In this match, it was Nadal, but even Federer’s fans had to feel a sense of accomplishment, watching their man play like the old days and threaten his old pal.
As Federer said yesterday, he’s here to win matches, not just play them. That's the only acceptable attitide to have. But considering his overall performance this season and his career record against Nadal—now 10-21—this result feels less like a loss and more like making up for lost time.