For a few heavy minutes in the fourth set of the Roger Federer-Rafa Nadal semi-final in Wimbledon, time did more than just stand still. The hands of the large Rolex clock on Centre Court seemed to be spinning back, spinning fast, back eleven years, back to that final in 2008, and giving 15,000 of us a small taste of what it must have felt like to witness live the greatest tennis match ever played.
That period didn’t last long on. Maybe about half an hour or so from the time Nadal saved his first match-point on his serve (at 3-5) to when he saved a fourth match-point on the following Federer serve – that last one pushing the contest past the three-hour mark after a roaring crosscourt winner from Nadal’s backhand bookended a ferocious and blood-curdling rally. But those 30 minutes felt like hours, years even; an intravenous infusion of memories for a lifetime.
Nostalgia was a tangible thing by this point; Federer too had saved two match-points in the fourth set of the 2008 final, just before a second rain break pushed the last match played under a roofless Centre Court into the dark recesses of a London evening. But last week, Federer, who seemed to be angelically floating above the bed of grass, snuffed it out while the court was still bathed in sunshine.
That final point too had just the right amount of flourish unique to them; flourishes that turn their affairs into classics. By the time Nadal returned the serve, he had already drawn his rival into a battle of his forehand versus Federer’s backhand. For four exchanges, this is how it played out – both men pressed into the corner of their respective ad court and Nadal growling his shots into Federer’s single-hander. In this theatre, those shots sounded wooden, like emitting from clashing clubs.
Federer’s backhand was holding up just fine. But when Nadal screamed another intestinal howl and thundered his forehand to Federer’s backhand for a third successive time, Federer glided around it and whipped it down the line, turning both the angle and the tide. Now Nadal’s backhand return sailed long and already the obedient subjects were up on their feet, hailing their king who had his fists thrust into the air.
Standing (and spilling joyous tears) beside me at the Centre Court was Stefan, the man responsible for my unexpected experience, which was, expectedly, a moveable feast. A Federer nut from Stockholm, Stefan had lucked out with two semi-final tickets on the ballot, and he and his 18-year old son with special needs were all set to soak in the magic of Centre Court. But the day before on Thursday, as they watched the men’s doubles action on Court 1, Stefan’s son had found the stands too claustrophobic; he helped his father find a replacement for him on Twitter.
And so there I was, armed with a ticket to the first Federer-Nadal meeting in Wimbledon since 2008. And there they were, walking into Centre Court eleven years later, with lesser hair on their scalps but not with lesser drive in their hearts. Nadal is 33. Federer is nearly 38. Yet they have, between them, won seven out of the last 10 Grand Slams. After the toss and the customary pose for photos, Federer floated to his baseline and Nadal charged to his and it was all a little too much for Stefan to unpack. “All I ever wanted to do was watch one match on Centre Court in my life,” he told me, welling up even before a shot was hit. “But for it to be the semi-final and Federer playing Nadal for the first time since the greatest match, what can I say. I can now die happy.”
The level wasn’t quite 2008. But think about it: how average can even an average Federer-Nadal match really be? For the first three sets, with plenty of easy holds of serve, the great rallies were few and far between. But if you prefer quality over quantity then they sure were elevating. Consider this exchange mid-way through the third set, where Nadal found himself wheeling the length of his baseline to reach a loopy inside-out crosscourt hit from Federer.
Nadal’s racquet spat it back with furious top spin and Federer stayed put at the edge of the court, flattening his inside-out forehand this time around. Nadal was prepared for the injection of pace, and he in turn flattened his forehand too, down the tramline. Now it was Federer racing through the length of his baseline and when the very edge of his lunging racquet made contact, the ball barely returned over the tape, sitting up nicely in the middle of Nadal’s court.
Nadal quickly calculated the best possible option – a drop shot falling perfectly diagonally opposite to the end where Federer was. But Federer cheated inertia like he cheats time, running from one end of his baseline to the other end of the net, and his backhand picked up the ball inches away from its second bounce and flicked it across Nadal for a screeching winner. Nadal clapped against the strings of his racquet. And 15,000 spectators, including Stefan and I, felt the ringing on the strings of our beating hearts.