We’re down to the final four. Novak Djokovic v Roberto Bautista Agut. And Roger Federer v Rafael Nadal.
Djokovic and Bautista Agut will battle for a place in the Wimbledon final when they face off in the first of Friday’s men’s semifinals.
It’s hard to escape the sense that match serves as something of a curtain raiser for the semifinal that follows, given the level of hype and fan interest in “Fedal XL”.
In what will be their 40th professional meeting, Federer and Nadal will clash for the first time at Wimbledon since their storied 2008 finale. An astonishing 11 years has passed since they last met on a grass court.
“I think it’s brilliant. Brilliant for tennis. It might be the last one here we see of them,” said 1997 Wimbledon singles semifinalist Todd Woodbridge, also a nine-time doubles winner at the All England Club.
“They’ve all played at their highest level (at Wimbledon this year), which I think is extraordinary.”
Extraordinary indeed, given that, 13 years after Federer and Nadal met in the 2006 Wimbledon final, they’re still at the top of the game and winning deep into the same tournament, at ages 37 and 33 respectively.
“It’s impressive to see how sort of healthy he’s stayed,” Federer said of Nadal after a four-set win over Kei Nishikori in the quarterfinals. “A lot of them (pundits) are saying, ‘Oh, it’s the end,’ by 2008. Similar to me in ’09. We’re still here. So it’s nice to play each other again.”
Federer arrived at the All England Club this year with more tennis under his belt than usual, after contesting the claycourt swing for the first time in three years. He played in Madrid and Rome before Roland Garros, and then popped over to Halle and claimed a 10th title on the German grass courts.
Despite riding a 10-match winning streak, Federer has endured some slow starts this fortnight, dropping the opening set of his first-round match to Lloyd Harris and doing the same against Nishikori in the quarters.
Woodbridge believes he can’t afford a similarly lacklustre start against Nadal, who has won 17 matches in a row.
“It’s going to be tight; I think if Federer’s to win he must win the first set,” Woodbridge said.
“I felt all along that Roger playing the claycourt season has been the key for him to win this tournament. Because when he’s been put under pressure in previous years with lesser matches, we’ve just seen him panic a little bit.
“I’d like to be sure to see him take his time and not try to outplay Rafa so quickly when things get tight. Trust his own ability. Even watching him yesterday (against Nishikori), his service games are so quick, that when he eventually gets a tight game come his way, it looks like he tightens and plays too quick and goes for too much.
“That’s what I think he needs to be aware of. If he controls that, then I expect him to win.”
Slow starts have not been a problem for Nadal, who stormed out of the blocks in his stellar second-round clash with Nick Kyrgios, and broke Sam Querrey in the third game of their quarterfinal en route to a 3-1 lead. He has not dropped a first set all tournament, and has lost just one set – the second against Kyrgios – in five matches.
His serve-forehand one-two punch has been devastating. And, surprisingly, he has hit more aces, averaged a higher service speed and won more first-serve points than Federer throughout this year’s Championships.
“Rafa has really impressed me this tournament,” Woodbridge said.
“Emotionally he came out so strong against Kyrgios, and that was a big mental match more so than form. And then against Querrey, when it got tight yesterday, he went up another level.
“That’s going to be the key of whether he can rise at that level again when Roger’s coming at him, because he’s playing an even better competitor.”
The world No.1 has shifted into another gear in the second week, thumping Ugo Humbert in the fourth round before winning 15 of the final 17 games against a hapless David Goffin in the quarterfinals.
Many might be expecting him to do the same against Bautista Agut, who arrived in his first Grand Slam semifinal courtesy of a four-set victory over Guido Pella on Wednesday.
However, it is noteworthy that Bautista Agut has won the pair’s two meetings in 2019; most recently in Miami, and before that in Doha. He nevertheless trails in the head-to-head series against Djokovic 3-7.
Woodbridge doesn’t foresee a hat-trick of victories for the Spaniard.
“It’s his first Grand Slam semifinal, and it really comes with a different atmosphere and expectation and feel. It is an occasion; you feel a different energy than you’ve ever felt walking onto the court at Wimbledon,” he said.
“Novak’s form has resembled what he displayed in Australia, where it’s just got better, and sharper, and the reality is, looking towards the weekend, he’s probably the favourite (for the final as well) if he has another clean match in the semis.
“All the match-ups for him (so far), he’s just too good. He still has that aura about him where everyone knows they have to play at such a level for such a long time (to match him). It’s like playing Rafa on clay.
“And Novak, interestingly enough, on hard court and grass has started to get that.”
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