Fed prevails as old foes serve up true classic
Eleven years had passed between the last 'Fedal' meeting at Wimbledon - in the legendary 2008 title match - and yesterday's semi-final. To the delight of all 15,000 enraptured fans on Centre Court, it was worth the wait.
There are few sporting events where the first reaction is not to clap or stand up, but just to laugh in disbelieving wonder. A Usain Bolt sprint. A Simone Biles double layout. And at least two dozen impossible rallies in this four-set, 3hr 3min masterpiece.
When it comes to miracle shots, Federer already has the greatest highlight reel of any player, past or present, but we might have to take it apart and rebuild it after this.
There was one backhand drive, played at a dead run against a Nadal drop-shot that had almost touched the turf for a second time, which surely defied the laws of physics as it caught the line. Even Nadal had to stop and applaud that one.
The magic of Fedal XL could be seen in the fact that stewards shut down access to Henman Hill to prevent a dangerous crush from developing. "Overcrowding issues" were blamed for the closure.
On Centre Court, overexcitement ran out of control as fans couldn't help yelping or screaming or simply gasping in the middle of these all-singing and all-dancing rallies.
Actually, we can except the first set from that rule, because this story had a strangely colourless introduction. Both players snapped straight into their rhythm on serve, so that the first point of the match was a Federer ace and Nadal opened his own account almost as quickly, sending down three unanswered deliveries without having to play another shot.
When starting the point, Nadal has never been known as a man with a blunderbuss up his sleeve, but he has found a new level this year, serving harder and more effectively than at any previous Wimbledon.
The first set felt almost as if we were watching John Isner playing Kevin Anderson - the equivalent semi-final that turned into a six-and-a-half hour serving duel in this same Friday evening slot last year.
It was only in the tie-break that the level began to climb - or rather switch on, because it happened in an instant.
Nadal opened this microcosmic mini-match with an inch-perfect dink on to the corner of the court, running forward at full tilt to retrieve a silky Federer drop shot. When he followed up with a couple more unanswered serves, everything looked comfy - but then came the twist, as Federer pressed the button marked 'turbo'.
Having stayed pegged to the baseline up until now, Federer suddenly ghosted into the court. The rhythm of the exchanges changed, becoming staccato - even frantic - as he punched volleys and buried smashes. Five points were needed, and all five delivered in a blur of white shoes on green grass.
Nadal must have felt like the patsy in a roadside conjuring game, turning over his chosen card to find that it wasn't the Queen of Diamonds after all.
Nadal wasn't going to take this indignity lightly. He never does. He was up off the canvas quickly and now the real fight began. The same serves that had been untouchable in the first set were suddenly cracking like eggshells. Nadal staved off two break points early in the third, then went on a rampage: ten straight points to begin with, which became five straight games.
Federer, according to the watching doubles player Mahesh Bhupathi, was conserving his energy rather than contesting every point. He is almost 38, after all.
Federer certainly surged back in the third set, using that feline movement to press forward again and dominate from the forecourt. From now on, Nadal's serve was constantly under pressure, and it was only his famous resilience that kept the damage down to one break against him in each of the last two sets.
The shots he produced in the penultimate game of the match, fending off two match points and forcing Federer to serve it out himself, were probably the best he hit all day.
There was still more drama as Federer saw another two match points come and go on his own serve. A lesser man would have blinked at this stage, allowing his mind to wander to the potential ignominy of allowing his advantage to slip away at the last.
But we are talking about probably the greatest front-runner in tennis history. Rather than tightening up, Federer increased his own weight of shot, playing on some ineffable autopilot as he finally forced Nadal into one final overhit backhand. He was home, 7-6, 1-6, 6-3, 6-4.
"I'm exhausted," said Federer as he came off the court. "It was tough at the end. Rafa played some unbelievable shots to stay in the match. The match was played at a very high level. The crowd was amazing. Battles with Rafa are always special, so it was nice
"I had spells where I was serving very well. I thought the biggest points went my way, the tight ones in the long rallies. He plays with such velocities and spins you're not sure what will happen when you make contact. But it was a joy to play today."
That assessment was surely supported by the stats, which showed Federer's extraordinary tally of 51 winners (40pc of his total points) to heavily outweigh Nadal's 32. His first serve was firing too, with 68pc - including 14 aces - landing in the service box.
Whenever Federer pushes that first-serve tally up towards 70 per cent at Wimbledon, he is almost untouchable. But now he will have to face Novak Djokovic - who dispatched Spain's Roberto Bautista Agut 6-2 4-6 6-3 6-2 - the man who defeated him in two of his last three finals here.
Surprisingly, Federer has never beaten both of his leading rivals in the same major. If he can bottle the genius of this performance, and uncork it again tomorrow, he could be looking at a ninth Wimbledon title. (© Daily Telegraph, London)