Second set: Nadal 6-7, 2-1 Federer* (*denotes next server)
The 37-year-old Federer has a little break before commencing the next game. Usually it’s Nadal keeping his opponent waiting with this tics and tricks. Speaking of which, have you noticed his eccentricities are so exact that he touches his shorts twice, shirt twice, nose twice and hair twice before every first serve? It’s quite draining to watch when you focus on it. I wonder what would happen if he cut loose once in a while. Perhaps Centre Court would spin off its axis. But then perhaps it already has, because Federer has two break points at 15-40. Both come and go. Federer will feel he should have done better on the second, when he nets a second-serve return. And Nadal doesn’t give him another chance. Two points later it’s game.
Second set: *Nadal 6-7, 1-1 Federer (*denotes next server)
Beware a wounded Nadal. He first holds to 30, before getting himself a break point at 30-40 in the next game. It comes and goes, but a breathtaking point at deuce goes Nadal’s way. The match took a while to really get going, but this is staggering stuff. Even Federer, usually so quiet, is grunting on every ball because of the sheer effort he’s having to put in. On the second break point Federer withstands a barrage of balls at the net to get it back to deuce. And after another couple of deuces he’s able to hold. And breathe.
Federer wins the first-set tie-break 7-3!
… and this time Federer forges ahead for the first time in the tie-break, going to Nadal’s backhand, before conjuring up a forehand winner! 4-3 Federer with the mini-break. Make that 5-3, 6-3, after two stinging first serves. Three set points, the first of which is on Nadal’s serve. But no bother, Federer wins it anyway, with a great return, rounded off with another forehand strike! He leaps into the air, the crowd are on their feet, as is his wife, Mirka. After 12 consecutive holds, Federer has taken five points on the spin to claim what could be a crucial first set. They’re both such great frontrunners; in their contests the player who’s won the first set has taken the match 31 out of 39 times.
That 2008 final was not only the Greatest Match of All Time ™, it featured two of the best tie-breaks the game has ever seen. What can they produce here? A quite ridiculous first point has the crowd on their feet as Nadal shows stunning speed to chase down the drop volley and dispatch it for the winner. But Nadal concedes the mini-break immediately. 1-1. Which becomes 2-2. Federer feathers a slice into the net, giving Nadal another mini-break for 3-2. Again, Nadal can’t capitalise and his lob loops long. 3-3 at the change of ends …
First set: Nadal 6-6 Federer* (*denotes next server)
“Katy, what do you think will be the deciding factor in this match?” asks Kenneth Ross. “Offence or defence? Serving aggressively or attacking on the returns? So glad these two are back on Centre Court playing each other. As a lifelong tennis fan and player approaching 50, I still vividly remember watching their 2008 final that Sunday in July – first at home, then in a newspaper newsroom, where all of us reporters and editors were watching the end of the match, absolutely spellbound.” Well both are going for offence at the moment. It’s a cliche, but the way this first set has played out, it will most likely just come down to very fine margins and who can take their chances. Federer didn’t in the eighth game. But he may get another here, because it’s deuce on Nadal’s serve. Federer goes for the forehand down the line to Nadal’s weaker side, the backhand, but his balance is off. Advantage Nadal. Game Nadal. This will be settled by a tie-break.
First set: *Nadal 5-6 Federer (*denotes next server)
Both players are looking so business-like at the business end of this set. These are short, sharp points, and they’re both battering the poor lines to within about a millimetre of their lives. Federer fizzes through to love. Cue Abhinav Bhadula. “People keep saying Nadal is favourite to win this tie… somehow I feel that’s insulting to Federer. No one would call Federer the favourite on a clay court against Nadal. Federer deserves the same respect on grass.. I think he’ll prove many people wrong today.”
First set: Nadal 5-5 Federer* (*denotes next server)
The camera zooms in on a boy who’s reading a book in the stands. Get him out! There’s several thousand spectators around the grounds who’d bite his hand off for his ticket. Nadal holds to 15.
First set: *Nadal 4-5 Federer (*denotes next server)
Now it’s Federer’s turn to feel a little pressure on serve at 30-all. But he responds by firing down not one but two aces for the game.
First set: Nadal 4-4 Federer* (*denotes next server)
Nadal is serving with new balls, as if he needs any more serving assistance right now. His serve has been so strong this tournament. But as soon as I write that Nadal slips to 15-30. He decides attack is the best form of defence as he strides toward the net, forcing the error from Federer. 30-all. He launches an all-out attack on the next point but fires long. 30-40, the first break point of the match, and it’s come out of nowhere. The pair go at each other in the longest rally of the match, the crowd gasp when a viciously spun Nadal forehand they thought was going out dips in, and after 21 shots Nadal is victorious. Deuce. Advantage Nadal. And Nadal slams the door shut just as quickly as it opened.
First set: *Nadal 3-4 Federer (*denotes next server)
You can guess what happens next, right? 15-0, 30-0, 40-0, game Federer. Both players are more aggressive than they were 11 years ago and are looking to finish the points more quickly. Federer’s conceded only three points on serve in four games, Nadal two points in three.
First set: Nadal 3-3 Federer* (*denotes next server)
There’s absolutely nothing giving on serve right now. Nadal holds to love. I’ve been asked to plug this women’s final preview, but the way these two are ripping through their service games the first set may nearly be over by the time you come back:
First set: *Nadal 2-3 Federer (*denotes next server)
“Nadal = GOAT,” emails Abhijato Sensarma. “Nadal is my favourite player. Nadal is fresh off another inevitable Roland Garros triumph. Nadal is virtually impossible to beat if he wins the first set, which he should. In conclusion, Nadal is going to the final after a victory against Federer, where he will lose to Djokovic again.” Federer looks as if he quite fancies proving Abhijato wrong as he flies through another service game, this time to 15.
First set: Nadal 2-2 Federer* (*denotes next server)
At 15-0, Federer’s effort stops dead on the line. 15-all. The first point he’s won on Nadal’s serve. But he shanks his return and it’s 30-15. A classic one-two punch straight from the tennis textbook from Nadal, with a serve out wide backed up by a forehand to the other side, and it’s 40-15. Federer reduces his arrears to 40-30 but is unable to make further inroads into Nadal’s serve.
First set: *Nadal 1-2 Federer (*denotes next server)
The crowd are by no means muted but they’re not in full voice either. Perhaps they’re conflicted as to who to support. Federer is, of course, the king of Wimbledon. But then the crowd also adore the King of Clay. Federer responds to Nadal’s love hold with one of his own.
First set: Nadal 1-1 Federer* (*denotes next server)
I mentioned the need for Federer to get off to a strong start – he’s only beaten Nadal twice after dropping the first set – so he could do with finding his feet quickly on Nadal’s serve. But that doesn’t happen here, with Nadal racing to 15-0, 30-0, 40-0, game.
First set: *Nadal 0-1 Federer (*denotes next server)
Are you ready for Federer v Nadal XL? They’re ready. Let’s play. It took 14 strokes to settle the first point of that 2008 final; this one is over in one as Federer rattles down an ace. The whole game looks as if it’ll be over in less than 14 shots at 40-15, but Federer fires long, before coming through to 30.
Tim Henman says he’s also going for Nadal in four. Boris Becker is hedging his bets and can’t decide between Federer in three or Nadal in four. But his indecision does highlight that it’s more important for Federer to get off to a quick start.
Tik! Tok! Tikity! Tok! They’re warming up. The last time these two met only four weeks ago, Federer was blown away by Nadal in the Roland Garros dust bowl, in some of the worst conditions seen at French Open. Conditions are set fair today, with the sun broken up by only a few clouds.
They arrive on court to a rip-roaring welcome. It would have been fun if Federer had rocked up in his daft gold-trimmed cardigan of 2008 and Nadal had opted for the sleeveless top and long shorts. But some things don’t change, as Nadal carefully lines up his two water bottles with the labels facing the court, jumps up and down during the coin toss and then does his raging bull charge to the back of the court for the warm-up.
But I digress. Here they are waiting to step on to court. Nadal makes sure he’s not under the door frame as he performs his obligatory jump.
What a difference a year makes. At this stage 12 months ago, time became one flat circle as Kevin Anderson and John Isner drove themselves – and Centre Court – to despair with that 26-24 final set in a serving slugathon lasting six hours and 35 minutes. There’s no chance of a repeat of that scoreline today, what with that match having prompted this year’s introduction of a fifth-set tie-break at 12-12, but I’m sure everyone here would take a 50-game decider between Federer and Nadal.
Nadal says: “Playing against Roger is always a unique situation. I’m excited to be back on Centre Court against him after 11 years. It means a lot for me and probably for him, too. The opportunities to play against each other are becoming less, but we still here.
“I’m not expecting to learn new things about him. I just expect to play against probably the best player in history on this surface. I know he’s playing well. He feels comfortable here.
“I’m playing well, too. I am playing with a very high intensity, playing aggressive, serving well and returning very well. I know that I have to play my best.”
Federer says: “Rafa has improved so much over the years on this surface. He’s also playing very differently. I remember back in the day how he used to serve, and now how much bigger he’s serving, how much faster he finishes points.
“We have a lot of information on Rafa, as does he on us. So you can dive into the tactics like mad, or you say: ‘It’s grass-court tennis so I’m going to come out and play my tennis.’ I’m excited to play him again.”
Prediction time. I’m conflicted. My heart says Federer – this is his tournament, after all – but my head says Nadal. He’s arguably been the better player this fortnight. And he’s usually the better player when these two meet, leading the head-to-head 24-15. Though we probably shouldn’t read too much into Nadal’s 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 win over Federer at the French Open four weeks ago given it was on clay. I’m going for Nadal, probably in four, as is Greg Rusedski:
There’s a 30-minute break between the semi-finals, by the way, so Federer and Nadal will be on court in around 10 minutes’ time.