It was Friday fight-night, a clash of titans, an epic rivalry, a collision of styles, a celebration of enduring brilliance and two guys who simply refuse to give way to new contenders. And hopefully by now you realise this wasn’t Boris Johnson vs Jeremy Hunt.
At the exact moment the Tory leadership candidates began being grilled in set-piece BBC interviews, the 33-year-old Rafael Nadal was sending the 37-year-old Roger Fededer racing round Centre Court and the senior man, already two sets to one ahead, struck his umpteenth glorious forehand to break his great rival. They had already been trumping each other’s winners for two hours and 20 minutes and there was even more to come.
Not the five sets the delirious stands craved, Federer eventually coming out on top 7-6 (6-3), 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 to bid for his ninth title against Novak Djokovic tomorrow. Five sets would have mirrored the greatest match of all time, the 2008 final between these gods of the game, on that occasion a long, long night ending with Nadal in long, long shorts claiming the prize. They hadn’t met at Wimbledon since but this sequel was worth the wait.
Best moment? We had 51 smoothed Federer winners and 32 via the flashing racket of Nadal from which to choose, so let’s hear no more about backstops and concentrate on backhands.
Maybe, though, the contest was summed up by the beaten player’s gesture in that fourth set when, desperately trying to break back, he chased in vain after another wonderful whipped shot from his opponent, then turned and applauded it.
Afterwards Federer rated it one his best matches on the SW19 lawns. “It lived up to the hype,” he said. “It’s always very, very cool to play Rafa here and it’s definitely, definitely going to go down as one of my favourite matches. There was a crazy last game which had everything. I’m relieved it’s over. I felt like I played good and I can be very happy.”
There were other superstar double-bills in London last night – Bob Dylan and Neil Young sharing the stage at Hyde Park, for instance. But here in the dream match-up, their 40th clash, were Rog and Rafa, who ignored the message of Young’s Old Man and were, in Dylan’s words, Forever Young.
Future continental relations may be in doubt because of Brexit but, in tennis, there’s free movement in Europe. Federer, the Swiss, calls Wimbledon home while Nadal, the Spaniard, rules Paris. In last night’s early stages it was difficult to tell who was the most scintillating. Maybe Federer because of his aces, but then Nadal would serve to love. Maybe Nadal because of the bludgeoning backhand, but did Federer’s searing forehand not look like the most decisive weapon on show? There was no hint of a break, the pair knowing each other’s moves so well. Federer glided on his golden calves, Nadal stomped on his. One of them was already dripping with sweat, the other shedding not one drop. One grunted, the other was silent and you all know who was who.
There were no loose shots, or at least none that were crucial. So when suddenly Nadal went break-point down in the eighth game, we half-expected the court’s fire alarm to sound. He solved that little local difficulty and in the tie-break grabbed an early advantage, thundering to the net to scoop up a drop-shot. There was another break for Nadal; again Federer cancelling. Then a Nadal backhand fell short. Then an astonishing return from Federer – well, astonishing by almost everyone else’s standards – and another volley of routine brilliance to clinch the set.
Right away in the second both seemed determined to up the quality still further, Federer rocketed a backhand from right down at his monogrammed shoes, then Nadal, left, winning the best running rally the gasping stands had witnessed thus far, a throwback to 2008. But then two Federer volleys found the net. Hadn’t every other shot soared majestically over it? This was, of course, an illusion, a trick of the light. Federer is mortal.
Nadal is also mortal but after 78 minutes he achieved the match’s first break of serve, then quickly another, and the set was his. Federer would have been hoping that was a freaky interlude and he twice served to love at the start of the third. Then he broke Nadal with some outrageous volleying.
Nadal felt this phase was “one of the keys of the match”. Federer, he said, is “always able to do the most difficult things easy”.
Nadal came again at that moment but Federer held him off, saving three break points as the rallies lengthened and the quality reached a new crescendo.
In the final game, that “crazy” game, Federer needed a fifth match point to win in three hours and two minutes. Nadal was beaten, but will live to fight another day. “We are not done so … things continue,” he said.