Roger-Rafa XL showed what Federer has done to turn around this rivalry

Roger-Rafa XL showed what Federer has done to turn around this rivalry

The highly anticipated semifinal promised to take us back to Wimbledon in 2008, but it turned out to be anything but a sequel. In the end, a changed Federer defeated his top rival in four sets.

When Friday’s semifinal at Wimbledon between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal began, the match that was on everyone’s minds was their classic 2008 final on Centre Court. This was the first time that the Spaniard and the Swiss had met in that arena since their legendary dual in the dusk 11 years ago.

Three hours later, though, when this semi was over and the chalk had settled on Federer’s 7-6 (3), 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 win, it no longer felt like a sequel to a past epic. Instead it felt like the continuation of the matches they had been playing since 2017, the year that Federer turned their rivalry around.

Before that year’s Australian Open, Nadal led their head to head 23-11. Since then, Federer leads 5-1—Nadal’s only win came on clay at the French Open last month. The reasons for that shift in Federer’s direction were clear again today.

Once upon a time—including at Wimbledon in 2008—Nadal could count on his lefty serve to Federer’s backhand to bail him out of trouble. But while that serve won Rafa plenty of points today, Federer was ready for it when it mattered most. At 3-3 in the first-set tiebreaker, Nadal hit a first serve down the T in the deuce court; up to that stage, he hadn’t lost a point with that play. This time, though, Federer anticipated it, rifled a backhand down the middle, won the point with his next forehand, and ran out the tiebreaker 7-3.

Once upon a time—including at Wimbledon in 2008—Nadal dominated the baseline exchanges between the two by rolling his crosscourt forehand into Federer’s weaker one-handed backhand. Today it was Federer who used his backhand to control those same crosscourt rallies, or at least keep them neutral long enough to give him a chance at a point-ending forehand. Usually, he found it. Time after time, Federer took control of the points with strong forehands that stretched Nadal wide on his backhand side. Federer hit 51 winners to Nadal’s 32, and made just two fewer unforced errors than Rafa.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the match was Federer’s ability to outlast Nadal in the long rallies. The most important of them came with Federer serving at 3-1 in the third set, with the match evenly poised at a set apiece, and Rafa trying to make a charge. Federer saved a break point with the deftest of backhand short-hops at the baseline, and then reached game point by surviving a 25-shot rally. During this tournament, there had been a lot of talk about how slowly the grass was playing; the assumption was that this would help Nadal. But this match actually featured fewer long rallies than their ’08 final, and when they did come, Federer won them.

“I won a lot of the important points in the third and fourth sets,” Federer said. “There were some brutal rallies in the key moments that went my way. I think those might have made the difference today.”

Finally, back in ’08, it had been Nadal whose game plan—work the forehand to Federer’s backhand—was crystal-clear, while Federer seemed unsure how much to try to attack Rafa. Today those roles were also reversed. Late-period Federer is much more decisive when it comes to attacking, and that was true even after he lost the second set to Nadal on Friday. For the day, Federer was 25 of 33 at net, and he came up with some difficult, excellent volleys on some very big points.

“I was able to stick to my game plan, stay aggressive, stay offensive,” Federer said. “I guess I also started to serve a bit better.”

Nadal, by contrast, was the one who was unsure of himself, the one who played tentatively enough to cede the initiative to Federer. Nadal came to net just 11 times, and won just six points there. Early on, you could see that he didn’t have the same confidence in his crosscourt backhand that he had had through his first five matches. That lack of confidence spread to his forehand, and eventually to his serve. While Federer’s serve improved as the match progressed, Nadal’s went in the other direction.

“I think today the backhand didn’t work as good as in the previous rounds,” Nadal said. “I was a little bit too worried about my backhand, so I was not able to move with freedom to the forehand. I was a little bit worried about not missing with the backhand. When that happens against a player like him, is so difficult. As I said, I think he played aggressive, he played a great match, and just well done for him.”

From Nadal’s perspective, the match reminded me of this year’s Australian Open final, which he lost to Novak Djokovic. In both cases, Rafa came in looking like the better player, and seemingly in top form. In both cases, he seemed to tighten up when he faced superior resistance from Djokovic and Federer. Right now, it still seems to be a leap for him to believe he can beat his fellow Big 3 brethren on faster surfaces.

On the whole, if this match resembled any past Federer-Nadal contest, it was the 2017 Australian Open final, a topsy-turvy affair that didn’t reach its frenetic peak until midway through the fifth set. This one reached a similar, even more frenetic and brilliant peak late in the fourth set. That’s when Nadal, fighting against what felt like inevitable defeat, finally loosened up, went on the offensive, and did whatever he could to defy his fate. 

“At the end of the match I started to play better, no?” Nadal said. “But it was late.”

As the crowd’s roars escalated, Rafa saved four match points and earned a break point that would have leveled the set at 5-5. But while Federer wavered a few times—he shanked one smash over the baseline—he kept his cool amid the rising hysteria. Federer hit two aces and a volley winner in the final game, and on his fifth match point, he out-rallied Nadal one more time. So many of their past contests have ended with a Federer ground stroke flying over the baseline; this time, it was Nadal who sent his last shot long.

“It lived up to the hype,” Federer said, “especially coming out of the gates, we were both playing well. Then the climax at the end with the crazy last game...It had everything at the end, which was great, I guess. I’m just relieved it’s all over at this point.

“It’s definitely, definitely going to go down as one of my favorite matches to look back at, again, because it’s Rafa, it’s at Wimbledon, the crowds were into it, great weather.”

Great weather? Maybe Federer was referring to the last time these two played here, when the weather was famously not so great. This time around, the ending was also much better for Federer. When Rafa’s last shot went long, Federer threw his fist over his shoulder with a mix of joy and relief—it was a rare moment of abandonment for him.

The last time I can remember seeing Federer celebrate that way was when he came back to beat Nadal in five sets in Miami in 2005. When Nadal did the same to Federer at Wimbledon in 2008, many of us saw it as a sign that Federer’s reign at the top was coming to an end. But 11 years later, when they finally met on that court again, it was Federer who was the last one standing. It was a long time coming, but you could see it was worth the wait.

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