The year was 2008. Iron Man, the first film of the Avengers franchise, was released. The Indian Premier League started. Novak Djokovic won his first-ever Grand Slam title at the Australian Open.
And a certain Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer in what is considered by many to bethe greatest Grand Slam final of all time to win his first Wimbledon trophy.
Eleven years later, Iron Man’s arc in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has ended, the IPL is one of the richest sports league, Djokovic is the world No 1 with 15 Majors. And Nadal and Federer play each other at Wimbledon for the first time since that fateful day.
That Wimbledon final – a five-set epic that finished in near darkness – inspired books, a documentary and a rivalry and thoughts about “passing the torch.”
A loss after five straight Wimbledon trophies to his nemesis at the French Open meant that everyone questioned Federer’s future as the undisputed top player. It didn’t matter that he was 26 and his opponent 22. It didn’t help that he would soon give over his world No 1 spot he had occupied for four years to the younger man.
In the decade since, both have battled injuries and surgeries, missed Grand Slams and fallen down the ranks. But it is a testament to their tremendous willpower and commitment that both have kept alive the flame of passion they have for tennis and are back in final four of Wimbledon again, at 37 and 33, as the world No 3 and 2.
More telling is the fact that this is the first time since 2008 French Open and Wimbledon that Federer and Nadal will play in back-to-back Grand Slams. They had their 39th meeting in the semi-final at Roland Garros, where the Spaniard won easily en route his 12th title.
On the grass at Wimbledon, though, the result might not be as foregone a conclusion as it was on clay.
Strangely, Federer and Nadal have taken contrasting paths to get to the last our, with the eight-time champion having to work harder than the two-time winner. Before the tournament, there was a sense of unease from the Spaniard over being demoted to third seed by Wimbledon’s grasscourt-based system and then a draw that seemed tough, on paper.
But on the court, Nadal has powered through the first five matches, dropping just one set to Nick Kyrgios in a blockbuster match and has faced no other seed till the semi-final. In the quarter-final, his serve and return against grass-courter Sam Querrey was superb, hitting 43 winners to just 12 unforced errors in the 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 win.
The 37-year-old, on the other hand, dropped the first set he played, to unheralded Lloyd Harris in the first round. He faced 27th seed Lucas Pouille in the third round and 17th Matteo Berrettini in the fourth. In the quarter-final, he was broken in the first game and then had to fight from a set down to beat eighth seed Kei Nishikori 4-6, 6-1, 6-4, 6-4. As is his wont, he squandered as many as 10 breakpoints while the third seed saved six of the seven break points against Querrey.
If their routes to the semi-final are anything to go by, the third seed appears to be in better form. In a way, the Swiss second seed hasn’t really reached his peak at the Major yet, even though his tennis has looked mostly smooth with Berrettini thanking him for the “tennis lesson”.
But this is grass, a surface that suits Federer’s game best. Even though their overall record stands at a lopsided 24-15, the Swiss leads 2-1 on grass, with all matches played at Wimbledon. In his last match, he went past Jimmy Connors’ Open Era record for most grass-court victories with 186. He also became the first man to win 100 singles matches at one Grand Slam. After the Halle title, he is on a 10-match win streak and has a record of 100-12 at the All England Club. Of course, he is also the oldest Grand Slam semi-finalist since Jimmy Connors at US Open in 1991.
If there was ever an occasion to raise his game, it will be against his good friend and greatest rival in the final four of his favourite Major. Nadal is no longer shaky on grass as he had been for good part of this decade. Since his runner up finish in 2011, he had not reached the quarter-finals for six years before an epic 10-8 decider loss to Djokovic in last year’s semi-final. His serve has improved tremendously and he has the big strikes to trouble on return as well, his forehand is almost as powerful as it is on clay.
The 37-year-old is well aware of this. “He has improved so much over the years on this surface. He’s playing also very different that he used. 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 healthy he’s stayed. A lot of them were saying, ‘Oh, it’s the end, by 2008.’ Similar to me in ‘09. We’re still here. It’s nice to play each other again,” he said of the clash.
But the Spaniard was more philosophical when asked how their games have improved. “I don’t think we improved much I think we managed to add things because we lose things on the other hand.”
But he accepted that he is probably better on grass today than a decade ago. “I am running less so I need to serve better…. 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.”
Contrasting thoughts on their games, contrasting routes to the semi-final but here they are again, 11 years later, to the place where the era of ‘Fedal’ well and truly became legendary. Whoever wins this encounter, both the players and their fans will be thankful that the Federer-Nadal show goes on.