WIMBLEDON, England — Unlike Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal’s duel into the twilight on Centre Court in 2008, their match Friday was not a contender for the greatest match of all time.
But it had its moments, both transcendent and surprising, and it also had a different finish.
Nadal won the 2008 final at Wimbledon, prevailing by 9-7 in the fifth set in something much closer to darkness than daylight.
Federer won the 2019 rematch in the semifinals, 7-6 (3), 1-6, 6-3, 6-4, finishing it off on his fifth match point by playing as boldly as he had from start to finish.
The victory earned Federer, 37, a chance to renew another great rivalry: this one with Novak Djokovic, the world No. 1, in Sunday’s final.
Djokovic advanced earlier in the afternoon on Centre Court with a hard-fought, four-set victory of his own over Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2.
Djokovic, the defending champion, has won four Wimbledon singles titles. Federer has won eight, the men’s record. He is the oldest man to reach the Wimbledon final since 39-year-old Ken Rosewall lost to Jimmy Connors in 1974.
Djokovic has played Federer 47 times and beaten him in 25 of those matches. Federer has not defeated Djokovic since 2015, and lost two of their three matches at Wimbledon — the finals in 2014 and 2015.
Friday’s semifinal results ensure that the Big Three of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic will retain their hold on Grand Slam titles. They have combined to win 11 in a row. Federer has the men’s record with 20 major championships, followed by Nadal’s 18 and Djokovic’s 15.
Should we look forward to the U.S. Open?
This year has ended some significant droughts in the Federer-Nadal rivalry. After nearly two years of not playing each other, Federer and Nadal have met twice in five weeks. They had gone 11 years without playing at Wimbledon. They had gone eight years between matches at the French Open before Nadal won their semifinal last month. They have somehow never faced each other at the United States Open. Is this the year?
FOURTH set | Federer WINS, 6-4
Nadal goes down fighting.
Nadal saved Federer’s first two match points on his own serve, and with Federer serving for the match in the next game, Nadal earned a break point when a backpedaling Federer could not corral an overhead smash. Federer saved the break point with a sharply knifed backhand slice, which Nadal could not lift back over the net.
Federer’s next two match points were saved with stellar play by Nadal. The first was a 24-shot rally in which Nadal was able to eventually plant his feet and hit a clean forehand winner down the line. On the second, Nadal hit a cross-court backhand winner.
The fifth match point was the charm for Federer, who forced a backhand error long from Nadal to end the match. He celebrated by punching the air in triumph.
“I’m exhausted,” Federer told the BBC. “It was tough at the end. Rafa played some unbelievable shots to stay in the match.”
The victory continues a remarkable chapter in their storied rivalry, which has suddenly swung hard in Federer’s favor.
Once trailing by 23-10 in their head-to-head, Federer has since won six of his last seven matches against Nadal.
Fourth set | Federer 5, Nadal 4
Nadal saves two match points.
On the brink of defeat, Nadal saved two Federer match points to hold serve for 4-5 in the fourth set, winning the longest game of the match so far. The most pivotal points for Nadal in the 16-point game were the shortest: he saved Federer’s first match point with a strong 121 m.p.h. serve down the middle, then the second with a sliding 103 m.p.h. serve out wide, neither of which Federer could return.
Nadal then closed out the hold with an ace. Federer will now serve for a spot in the final.
Fourth set | Federer 5, Nadal 3
Federer closes in on a victory.
Federer maintained the break advantage he earned early in the fourth set, and now leading 5-3, one game from booking his spot in the Wimbledon final.
There have been four straight holds since Federer broke for 2-1. After Nadal gained a slight edge by winning a 26-shot rally, the longest of the match, Federer dug out of a 15-30 deficit in the sixth game. Federer continued pressing in the seventh game, including chasing down a short Nadal shot for an improbable backhand winner, but Nadal held.
Federer quickly followed suit, holding for 5-3, finishing with two unreturned serves.
Fourth set | Federer 3, Nadal 1
Federer takes an early lead in the third set.
Federer has carried his momentum into the fourth set, breaking Nadal in the third game to put himself up, 2-1. He held easily in the next game to go ahead by 3-1.
Federer has found range on his groundstrokes, pressing Nadal with consistently deep hitting. Counter to most assumptions about this matchup, Federer is benefiting when points grow longer: He has won 35 of 60 rallies that last five or more shots.
Third set | Federer wins, 6-3
Federer dominates the third set.
After dropping the second set, Federer claimed an emphatic third set to put himself one set from the Wimbledon final.
Federer calmly closed out the set, 6-3, after squandering advantages in his previous two return games. In three games, he held serve without Nadal winning any points. Nadal won only five points during Federer’s serve in the set.
The good news continues for Federer: Nadal has never come back to win against him after trailing by two sets to one.
Third set | Federer 5, Nadal 2
Federer maintains his momentum.
After losing the second set, 6-1, Federer looked on his way to handing Nadal an equally lopsided loss of the third set, going up by 4-1 and holding two break points for a 5-1 lead in the sixth game.
Nadal fought back, however, saving the first with a service winner and drawing an error on Federer’s backhand for the second, eventually holding for 2-4 with an 123 m.p.h. serve down the middle.
Federer quickly held the next game to squash any possible momentum swing, going up by 5-2 with a backhand volley winner.
Third set | Federer 4, Nadal 1
Federer pulls ahead in the third set.
After being trounced in the second set, Federer started the third with renewed purpose, holding his first two service games to love.
He then cracked Nadal’s serve for the first time in the match, converting his fourth break point of the day with a backhand volley winner to end a 12-shot exchange and go up by 3-1 in the third set.
The advantage was quickly endangered: Federer went down, 15-40, in the next game. He saved the first break point with relative ease, putting away a smash winner. He survived the second on a nail-biting 23-shot rally, the longest of the match, finally drawing a forced error from Nadal’s backhand. After saving one more break point, Federer held for 4-1, putting himself commandingly ahead in the third set.
Third set | Federer 2, Nadal 1
Nadal has the edge over Federer in major semifinals.
For much of their careers, Federer and Nadal took turns at No. 1 and No. 2 in the rankings, so they could only meet in tournament finals. This is the only the fifth time they have faced each other in a Grand Slam semifinal, and Nadal has won them all — at the French Open in 2005 and 2019 and the Australian Open in 2012 and 2014.
SECOND set | NADAL WINS, 6-1
Nadal pounces on Federer’s poor form.
After dropping the first set and leaving the court, Nadal ran away with the second set, taking it 6-1 in 37 minutes to level the match.
Nadal had break-point chances in all three Federer service games and broke him twice to take a commanding lead.
Federer’s frustration surfaced in the final game, even going for a low percentage rush return (the so-called SABR — Sneak Attack By Roger). Federer had 11 unforced errors in the set, and won only 15 of the 45 points.
Federer will serve to open the third set.
SECOND set | NADAL 4, FEDERER 1
Nadal jumps ahead in the second set.
After saving two Federer break points in the third game, Nadal rapidly surged ahead in the second set. He broke Federer at love to lead 3-1, helped by two Federer forehand errors, and then quickly consolidated with a hold to 15 of his own for a 4-1 lead.
Nadal has found particular success, as usual, targeting Federer’s backhand: that side has produced 10 unforced errors, 14 forced errors, and just one winner.
SECOND set | NADAL 2, FEDERER 1
Both players save break points early in the second set.
The second game of the second set was the longest game of the match so far, with Federer digging out a hold after 12 points.
Nadal earned two break-point opportunities, but Federer saved both, each time coming forward to the net to finish the point, the first with a smash winner and the second with a backhand volley.
Federer carried the momentum from his hold into the next game, earning two break points of his own at 15-40.
Nadal saved them, then closed out the hold with his fifth ace of the match.
First set | Federer WINS, 7-6
Federer claims the first-set tiebreaker, 7-3.
After a set with no breaks of serve, five of the first seven points in the first-set tiebreaker were won by the returner.
Nadal opened with a mini-break, chasing down a short Federer forehand volley and flicking it up the line with a backhand, leaving Federer to turn and look as it landed inside the corner. Federer nullified the advantage on the next point, however, forcing a backhand error from Nadal.
Nadal got the edge back in the fifth point, jamming Federer with a looping forehand that he awkwardly sent back into the net.
Federer then pounced again, leveling the score at 3-3 before the change of ends and then taking his first lead with a forehand winner.
Federer then consolidated by winning two points on his serve, giving himself triple set point at 6-3. He won it, 7-3. with a forehand winner down the line. Federer is now 6-1 in tiebreakers against Nadal at Wimbledon.
Winning the first set was crucial for Federer: in the 20 times he has lost the first set to Nadal, he has come back to win only twice.
First set | Federer 6, Nadal 6
The first set heads to a tiebreaker.
Federer has generated the only break-point opportunity of the match so far, but Nadal has often known how to stave off such moments of danger in their matches. In their last Wimbledon meeting, in 2008, Nadal saved 12 of 13 break-point chances. Federer also got to 40-40 with Nadal serving at 5-6, but Nadal closed out the game to force a first-set tiebreaker.
First set | Federer 4, Nadal 4
Rallies are in short supply.
Rally length has increased at Wimbledon this year; the earlier semifinal between Djokovic and Bautista Agut featured a 45-shot rally, the longest at the tournament since 2005, when Wimbledon started tracking rallies. So far only three of the first 41 points between Federer and Nadal has lasted nine or more shots. The two are struggling to beat each other from the baseline, with only four groundstroke winners combined so far.
Nadal did save the first break point of the match by winning a 21-shot rally, the longest of the match.
First set | Federer 3, Nadal 3
The servers are in control so far.
It has been smooth sailing for the server in the first six games. Nadal surprisingly came into the match with more aces during this tournament than Federer, 47-42. Nadal’s coach, Carlos Moya, has focused on improving the serve and shortening points. Federer has four aces so far and has lost only three points in his three service games. Nadal has lost only two points on his serve.
Unsurprisingly, Centre Court’s Royal Box is full of notable names for this match. They include golfers Gary Player and Nick Faldo; the TV personalities David Attenborough and Bear Grylls; the actors Eric Bana, Hugh Grant, Jude Law and Damian Lewis; the singer Leona Lewis; and the soccer coach Alex Ferguson.
Players say the Wimbledon grass is slow.
One word has been bandied about frequently to describe the courts at Wimbledon this year: slow.
Top grass-court players like Federer and Petra Kvitova and big servers like Milos Raonic and Karolina Pliskova have all commented on the pace of the courts.
A slower court means fewer aces and longer rallies. Case in point, the earlier semifinal between Djokovic and Bautista included a 45-shot rally from the baseline. Martina Navratilova noted the number of players better known for clay-court prowess to reach the later rounds at Wimbledon.
One such player was Guido Pella, 29, who was a quarterfinalist despite only winning two matches at the All England Club in his career before this year. He said the courts were “much slower” than in the past.
“I think the matches are more playable than in other years. You can play from the baseline without any problem. It was much easier for us to move, to play like a clay court.”
“Like a clay court” should be music to the ears of Nadal, the greatest clay player in history.
He, of course, hadn’t noticed a difference.
“Honestly, the surface for me is the same as always,” he said.
Let’s look back to 2008.
Federer, 37, and Nadal, 33, had not played at Wimbledon in the 11 years since Nadal defeated Federer, 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7, in a final that is considered one of the greatest matches in tennis history. A book and a documentary about the match are called “Strokes of Genius.”
Bjorn Borg, whose 1980 Wimbledon final against John McEnroe is quite famous in its own right, called the 2008 final “the best tennis match I’ve ever seen in my life.”
It took 4 hours 48 minutes, and remains the longest Wimbledon men’s final. It was interrupted twice by rain. It was so dark by the end, around 9:15 p.m. local time, that Nadal said, “In the last game, I didn’t see nothing.”
The match was widely viewed at the time as a passing of the torch. The No. 2 Nadal had routed the No. 1 Federer on clay in the French Open final a few weeks before, but dethroning Federer on grass was a huge step in Nadal’s rapid ascension. Federer had beaten Nadal in the Wimbledon final the two previous years. Nadal became the first man since Borg in 1980 to win the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year. The next month, Nadal supplanted Federer at No. 1 in the rankings.
Ultimately, though, the torch wasn’t passed so much as it was shared. The two are still playing each other in late rounds of majors. Since the 2008 final, Federer has won eight Grand Slam singles titles for a total of 20, the men’s record, and Nadal is right behind him with 18. (Djokovic, the No. 1 seed this year, has won 14 of his 15 major championships since then.)