Hercules and Zeus: Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal meet as equals
Tremors from their epic 2008 final are still felt among the Wimbledon halls
Rafael Nadal is congratulated by Roger Federer after winning their their match in 2008. Photograph: Getty Images
Radio silence on grass for 11 years, the greatest rivalry in modern tennis Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal on Friday rekindle their other worldly and now venerable duel. More than a decade on the pair again meet on Centre Court, tremors from their epic 2008 final are still felt among the Wimbledon halls.
Of the last seven meetings Nadal has won just one, although, the relevance of that is uncertain as the Spaniard leads 24-15 in their head to heads. Drilling down further, of the three grass meetings between the number two and three seeds, Federer has won twice at Wimbledon in 2006 and 2007 with Nadal winning the following year 6-4, 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-7(8), 9-7 in one of the greatest finals ever played and inspiration for a book and an aptly named documentary Strokes of Genius.
Federer was 26 years old then, Rafa 22 years old and the match which began in the afternoon and continued into the night eclipsed anything that came before. In a Sports Illustrated piece last year that marked the 10th anniversary of the meeting, the two were set out as gods of the game as well as polar opposites.
“Righty versus lefty. Classic technique versus ultramodern. Number 1 versus Number. 2. Feline light versus bovine heavy. Middle European restraint and quiet meticulousness versus Iberian bravado and passion. Dignified power versus unapologetic, whoomphing brutality. Zeus versus Hercules.”
Still here claiming custody of the grass with Nadal the undisputed owner of the clay in Roland Garros
And so it is again, Federer, the classic, restrained god of the sky and lightning picking his way through this year’s draw with exquisite precision, Nadal blowing away opponents, barnstorming through the heavy artillery of Sam Querrey for a set in the last round and then his left arm cutting the American to pieces in just over two hours.
The two have created their own dimensions and in different ways have been untouchable so far this fortnight, Nadal dropping just one set to Nick Kyrgios with Fededer dropping two sets - to Lloyd Harris in his first match and to Kei Nishikori in the quarter-finals. Despite that the ethereal game of Federer has taken less time to get to this point than Nadal’s broad sword.
The Spaniard, now 33 years old to Federer’s 37, understands the two are not the players they were 11 years ago. Nor does he expect to face the same Federer he faced for four hours and 48 minutes of spellbinding drama that ended in flashing cameras in gloaming light over a decade ago.
“I don’t think we improved much,” said Nadal after beating Querrey. “I think we managed to add things because we lose things on the other hand, no? We need to add new things because of the age, we are losing another thing from the other side.
“In the world of sport, things change very quick. You need to be always ready for that, changes in a negative way or a positive way. You need to accept both things, accept both things with calm and with clear mind to understand what’s going on later, no?”
The things the two have lost in getting older, they have tried to compensate for in other ways in the twilight years of their careers. Nadal’s serve and return appear to have improved over time and in his press conference he explained how those enhancements and emphasis on other aspects of his tennis are keeping him moving forward and competitive.
He knows they must because of what he has lost along the way.
“My clear answer was I am running less so I need to serve better,” he explained. “I probably cannot play 20 weeks per year anymore, so I need to reschedule my planning to improve things to be very competitive every single time that I am on court.
“Of course, I am serving better. Of course, I am hitting the backhand better. Maybe volleying better, slicing better. But even like this, I don’t know if my level today will beat my level of years ago.”
But with that the potential exists for another classic meeting, Novak Djokovic’s semi-final against Roberto Bautusta Agut in the top half of the draw lost in the growing expectation and almost incidental. The 2008 meeting still lingers. But the interpretation at the time of Nadal’s conquest was of a passing of the torch. In that the two have absurdly and wonderfully defied all.
“(Rafa) has improved so much over the years on this surface,” said Federer after defeating Nishikori. “He’s playing also very different than he used to. Haven’t played each other in a long, long time on this surface. He’s serving way different. 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.
“It’s impressive to see how sort of healthy he’s stayed. A lot of them are saying, Oh, it’s the end, by 2008. Similar to me in ‘09. We’re still here.”
Still here claiming custody of the grass with Nadal the undisputed owner of the clay in Roland Garros. This time it’s Federer with his record 100 Wimbledon wins, defending his patch of turf, driving to add to his eight Wimbledon titles knowing the time to do it is shrinking all the time.
“I feel good on the court,” said the 37-year-old. “Even if I’m down a set or down a break, no hurry there. I stay calm.”
There will be no changing of the guard. They are past that. Both different, they meet as equals. Hercules and Zeus.
Head to Head: Nadal leads 24-15
Roger Federer (Switzerland)
World Rank 3
Grand Slam titles 20
Wimbledon titles 8
Wimbledon wins 100
2019 win-loss record (grass) 10-0
2019 win-loss record 37-4
Rafa Nadal (Spain)
World Rank 2
Grand Slam titles 18
Wimbledon titles 2
Wimbledon wins 53
2019 win-loss record (Grass) 5-0
2019 win-loss record 37-5