Wimbledon Daily Dispatch: Federer Outguns Nadal, Sets up Blockbuster Final with Dominant Djokovic
By Thomas Cluck
(July 12, 2019) When getting up after a bad day, just remember it’s a new day. When getting up after a good day, remember it’s a new day still- you’ve got to prove yourself all over again. And in tennis, every other day doesn’t even matter.
Entering a major semifinal against another all-time great, all that matters is the ability to bring it – one’s guts, one’s calm, and one’s best – on the day of battle when the clock strikes go. On Friday at Wimbledon, Roger Federer showed once again why he is the greatest man to ever play this game. He does just that.
It was a new day for Federer – and for Rafael Nadal on the opposite end- as the eight-time champion and Swiss legend showed just how great he is, saving his best tennis for the day when he needed it most, outgunning, out competing, out-gusting, and outplaying his longtime rival, friend, foil, companion, and rival to reach a 12th final at the All England Club 7-6(3), 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 in just over three hours of brilliant tennis on the world’s most famous, beautiful, and prestigious tennis stage.
While it was Nadal, twice a winner at The Championships, coming in as the odds-makers favorite to reach the final off the back of impressive wins over top-notch competition and some dominant, red-hot performances along the way, it was Federer who showed once again that what matters most in a champion is their ability to play their best, better than anyone else, on the one day it really counts, no matter the matches, days, or weeks before.
While Federer did that as he does best, Nadal couldn’t. He was just that tiny bit off, that extra edge lacking, some extra nerves and tension in each shot, and that aggressive mindset and clarity in his tennis missing. Quite simply, Roger showed up for Fedal XL, and Rafa didn’t.
“He played aggressive. He played a great match,” said Nadal.
While the 20-time major champion Federer came out looking cool, calm, and collected, as he always does in his trademark suave fashion, Nadal walked on to court just a little more anxious and uptight than is usual from him, someone who is admittedly far more nervous and worrying a person and player than his Swiss counterpart.
While Federer came out blasting aces down the middle, carving incredible angles with his first delivery, and hitting even more precise than usual, the Spaniard’s serve, which had been some of his in his career with dominant statistics in aces, first serve percentage, and points won, showed signs of trouble early with more missed than in previous rounds and just a bit of velocity off it. And while Federer was seeing the ball beautifully and connecting perfectly on his paintbrush-like groundstrokes, the timing and feel was just a bit off for Nadal. And against a player and champion of Federer’s caliber, no one can come back from that.
To his credit, Nadal, as he always does, scrapped and fought and battled and surged at times, playing himself closer into the match than their levels really suggested, applying pressure and forcing the question of Federer to keep his high level up the entire match. A second set disaster blip aside, the Swiss great passed Nadal’s continued tests with flying colors. The Spaniard even saved four match points and truly put the pressure on Federer to close the match out, hitting bigger and cleaner than he had all match. He was better and more intense than at any point before. It was still too little, too late. Federer closed it out on the fifth.
“I’m exhausted. It was tough at the end. Rafa played some unbelievable shots to stay in the match,” said Federer. “I thought the match was played at a very high level.”
“I thought probably the biggest points in the match went my way. There were some tight ones and long rallies. He plays with such velocity and spins and everything, you’re not always sure you’re going to connect the right way.”
“I had small chances, a couple of ones, and was not able to convert,” assessed Nadal. “I just didn’t play as well as I’ve played earlier in the tournament.”
Nadal, always the pragmatist summed it up perfectly: “I didn’t play well enough.”
For the Spaniard, it’s another missed opportunity- as he pointed out many times in his post-match press conference- but even more than that, it’s another reminder that what’s missing most and barring him from Grand Slam glory outside of the French Open is not a better forehand down the line, or a more aggressive backhand, or even a stronger and faster serve. It’s the worst answer for a tennis player: it’s a stronger mental toughness that is missing.
Coming in so high on confidence, behind so many impressive and dominant wins here over dangerous big-hitting opponents, with such strong form and some of his career-best serving, Nadal still wasn’t able to get it done and bring his A-game in the match, the one day, when it mattered most. It was the same issue when he lost the 2017 Australian Open final from a break up in the fifth set to Federer and when he couldn’t convert multiple set point opportunities in the crucial third set or any break points in the final set in his heartbreaking five-set loss to Novak Djokovic on this very same court in the very same round last year.
When the pressure and stakes are at their highest, when the player across the net is playing their best, Nadal has consistently been unable to bring out that best tennis when he needs it and the clarity and conviction in his mentality to go for it. And until that edge and self-belief in the biggest moments is back, Nadal will not see another win against his great rivals in Federer and Djokovic outside of Paris. He won’t be “truly back” until that happens again.
But as is the case in sport, while it’s one’s agony and pain, it’s the other’s ecstasy and opportunity. Standing across the net, and between him and a ninth title, for Federer on Sunday will be Djokovic, himself looking for a 16th major crown and a fifth Wimbledon trophy. It’s gonna be just as good, and just as much of a challenge for the Swiss great.
“Age kicks in. I know it’s not over yet. There’s no point to start partying tonight or get too emotional, too happy about it, even though I am extremely happy,” commented Federer.
“I think I can, with experience, really separate the two [matches]. If it was the end of the tournament, it would be very different right now. I’d be speaking very different, feeling very different. There is, unfortunately or fortunately, one more.”
One other piece of history Federer will be going for on Sunday, a win will join him with Nadal as the only players in history to defeat two of the “Big Three” to win a Grand Slam title.
“Of course it’s difficult. For the younger guys to get over the hump, they have to beat two of us in a row, which is something very tough to do. I know it too well myself,” explained Federer. “Rafa, as a lefty, poses different problems to me or others than Djokovic does. Djokovic stays on his line, hits flat, moves differently and covers the court differently. So for this you have to adjust tactically.”
“But the most important thing is the confidence. If you don’t have the confidence, it’s very difficult to beat Rafa and Novak back to back.”
Novak Djokovic, four times a winner at SW19, will come into Sunday’s championship match fairly rested and not battle tested, having spent very little time on court and yet to defeat a top 20 player this tournament, booking his spot in the final with a 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory over Spanish 23rd seed Roberto Bautista Agut in under three hours.
The top seed and defending champion here in London, Djokovic came in against Bautista Agut on high alert as the flat-hitting Spaniard had defeated him twice already this season in Doha and Miami. Despite dropping the second set, it was vintage Novak, outlasting his opponent and even winning a lung-busting 45-shot rally with a scintillating backhand down the line winner. It was the longest rally in Wimbledon history.
“At one stage of the match, it could have gone [a] different way. Was very close in the third set,” said Djokovic. “Couple of very long games when I broke his serve and he had some breakpoints, a very long rally. I managed to make a winner down the line with a backhand. Obviously winning that game was crucial for me. It gave me more confidence and relief so I could swing more freely in the next games.”
“I’ve played with Roger in some epic finals here a couple years in a row,” commented the Serb, who upended Federer in both the 2014 and 2015 finals here. “I know what to expect.”
No one knows what to expect from the incredibly intriguing, story-line-rich women’s final on Saturday as seven-time Wimbledon winner Serena Williams faces off against former French Open champion Simona Halep. Williams is going for her 24th major title to equal Margaret Court’s all-time record for major singles titles, Halep is looking to cement her Hall of Fame legacy.
On Serena’s side, all things start and end with her serve and her nerves. Blast the serve, win free points, attack Halep’s second, and control the nerves and Serena will win. But after two chances since coming back from giving birth to her first child in late 2017 to make history as a mom and break Court’s record here last year in the final and later at the US Open, Williams knows it won’t be easy. If Halep can manage her own nerves, keep a high percentage of first serves, and extend points on an attacking Serena, the Romanian’s got a fighting chance. And either way, it could be epic.