The two great champions facing off one more time – for a while, there is looked as if would not happen again. As Nadal was slowed by yet more injuries and Federer simply got older, it seemed as if the glory days were over. Yet this year, hard on the heels of their Roland Garros semi-final last month, they will go toe-to-toe on Centre Court for the first time in 11 years.
To get there, Nadal pushed and pushed to topple the giant of man that is Sam Querrey yesterday. It took 58 minutes for the Spaniard to hear the first creaking sounds – Nadal took the first set – and then only a few minutes more before the 6ft 6in mighty oak with the huge serve started to fall [Nadal broke serve again at the start of the second set]. By the time Querrey’s serve had been broken again, you could almost hear Nadal yell “timber!” Querrey’s Wimbledon was over and Nadal was through 7-5, 6-2, 6-2.
It was an excellent performance from the No 3 seed. Off the blocks like a sprinter, playing with aggression and power, serving well, volleying with precision and, of course, returning that thundering serve. Querrey banged down 14 aces in the first set – and 22 in all – and still came out on the wrong end of a pasting. It was the perfect warm-up before Nadal and Federer collide.
“I think I am playing with a very high intensity,” Nadal said, “playing aggressive, serving well and returning very well. Today was big, big challenge against a serve like Sam. To have the chance to break him six times, I think, is a lot against a player like him. A victory that means a lot to me. Very happy.
“In general terms I can’t say one particular thing that is working well because, in general terms, I am very, very happy the way I am playing.”
The Nadal of today is a very different beast from the Nadal of 2008, the last time he and Federer played in SW19. That was their third final in three years and that year the long haired, sleeveless Spaniard won in the near dark to claim the first of his two titles [he also beat Tomas Berdych in 2010].
Back then, and for many years after, Nadal referred to Federer at “the greatest of the history”. Today, with a shorter cut to his thinning hair and a more grown-up polo shirt to play in, the world No 2 has 12 Roland Garros titles among his 18 grand slam titles in all. Now that he is chasing down the mighty Swiss, he refers to Federer as “the best player of the history on this surface”. It is a subtle difference, but telling nonetheless.
It was not that long ago that Nadal, for all his success, still talked of his old foe in reverential tones. He sounded like a man who felt unworthy to be mentioned in the same sentence as the eight-time Wimbledon champion. Not any more, though. He leads their rivalry by 24 wins to Federer’s 15 and he has established such a record at the French Open that it is unlikely ever to be beaten. Federer is, with 20 Grand Slam titles, a living legend but Nadal knows that, with his 18 titles, he is too. And they keep working relentlessly to become even better.
“Of course, I am serving better,” Nadal said. “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.
“In terms of improvement, I don’t know. In terms of readapt my game, readapt our game, talking about me and Roger, for sure there is lot of things that we find a way to keep being one of the best of the world.”
After 15 years of chasing each other around the world in pursuit of major titles, there are no secrets between the two men. Nadal won in Paris a few weeks ago, Federer won the six before that, including the 2017 Australian Open final. Not that Federer thinks any past result has any relevance for this encounter.
“It doesn’t matter anyway,” Federer said. “Who cares? It’s about how has he played so far, how have I played so far. I hope it goes my way.
“It’s going to be tough. Rafa really can hurt anybody on any surface. I mean, he’s that good. He’s not just a clay court specialist, we know.”
Who is the better grass court man? We will find out tomorrow.