Wimbledon at last got the classic encounter it has yearned for this summer, as Roger Federer overcame his greatest adversary to reach his 12th Wimbledon final.
It is hard to believe that we have had to wait 11 long years for the greatest Grand Slam winners of all time to meet again on the famous lawns of SW19.
But somehow Federer and Rafael Nadal stayed apart all those years – depriving us of some sort of re-run of the 2008 final, which was the final to end all finals.
This was their 40th meeting, but somehow felt a bit more significant than most of the others in the intervening years – a stand-alone contest to frame against the five set epic of nearly five hours which Nadal took to claim his first Wimbledon crown all those years ago.
Nadal has had the better of Federer on other surfaces and led 24-15 on head to heads going into this year’s semi-final meeting. But at Wimbledon, Federer is king and he wanted to reassert that status, even on the cusp of his 38th birthday.
That defeat in 2008 was the only loss in three previous clashes at Wimbledon, with Federer having beaten the Spaniard in the finals of 2006 and 2007.
Between them, the pair have amassed 38 Grand Slams, and it is Federer who will have the chance to increase his personal tally, which currently stands at 20.
On Sunday, he will have the small matter of trying to get the better of world number one Novak Djokovic in the final to try and claim a ninth Wimbledon singles title. But today, he is entitled to bask in a brilliant victory, which enthralled a captivated Centre Court crowd.
There was nothing to choose between the pair in the opening set, which always looked destined for a tie-break. Even that decider was nip and tuck, until the Swiss bagged five points on the trot to draw first blood.
But Nadal raised his game to break Federer for a 3-1 lead in the second set and broke again in closing out 6-1 – his rival seemingly giving up the ghost to conserve energy.
Then it was Federer’s turn to up the gears as the play reached new heights. The rallies were ferocious. The angles, depth and range of groundstrokes unforgiving. This was geometry of such precision at times that it beggared belief.
And the modus operandi was all so familiar. Nadal with his violent baseline top spins from rippling forearm shots. Federer still dancing. Still the supreme exponent of merging tennis and ballet.
Federer fashioned one break point and took it to lead 3-1. Nadal immediately had break points to get back into the set, but was rebuffed. The Swiss held on to take the set 6-3 and suddenly he was looking in charge.
An early break for 2-1 in the fourth set confirmed that the tide was now in his favour, but there was never any question of Nadal throwing in the towel. It is not in his make-up. Twice he saved match points on his own serve, then saved three more on Federer’s serve.
Rage against the dying of the light. Both men have been so good at that that no younger generation has been able to usurp their dominance of the big prizes – alongside Djokovic – for more than a decade and a half.
Applause at the end was full of admiration and awe. A royal box full of celebrity comedians, sports stars and actors aware that it had been a privilege to witness two of the game’s greatest ever exponents slug it out in front of them – the players sharing a spotlight they must have envied.
At just over three hours long, it was never going to be in the same league as their most famous match of all, but considering they are players who are supposed to be well past their peak, it was nothing short of brilliant.
Federer becomes the third oldest man to reach a Grand Slam final in the Open era. It will be his fifth Wimbledon final since turning 30. He also has a 12-1 semi-final record in SW19. Age has not withered him. Wimbledon has only every uplifted him.
“Age kicks in [but] I know it’s not over yet,” Federer said. “There’s no point to start partying tonight or get too emotional, too happy about it, even though I am extremely happy.
“It [the match] lived up to the hype. We were both playing very well. Then the climax at the end with the crazy last game, some tough rallies there. It had everything at the end, which was great. I’m just relieved it’s all over.”
“I think his return was better than my one this afternoon,” said Nadal, who at 33 is a comparative spring chicken. “I didn’t receive well today.
“It’s great to be part of this rivalry, be in the middle of these three players that achieved that much in this sport in the same era. [But] we are not done, so things continue.”
The first semi-final of the day was always likely to seem like a footnote, such was the shadow cast by the main event of the day, but it was a fine contest in its own right.
Roberto Bautista Agut, contesting a first Grand Slam semi-final at the age of 31, gave it his all against Djokovic and after being pounded into submission in the first set, 6-2, he clawed back the second 6-4.
The Serb needed to be patient because the Spaniard clung on tenaciously and defiantly. But Djokovic prevailed 6-3, 6-2 and will have a shot at claiming his fifth Wimbledon title tomorrow.