It’s safe to say men’s semi-finals day at Wimbledon lived up to the hype. Never mind Sir Alex Ferguson, David Beckham, David Attenborough, Hugh Grant, Damian Lewis watching on, the real stars were the ones playing out on Centre Court.
Novak Djokovic did not canter to a sixth Wimbledon final, but was made to work against Roberto Bautista Agut, the Spanish 23rd seed who did not look phased in his first Grand Slam semi-final.
Bautista Agut had to postpone his Ibiza stag do after unexpectedly reaching the last four, and his friends watching on from the players’ box could have been forgiven for thinking the groom-to-be could become the best man on Friday.
But after levelling at one-set all, Djokovic responded in champion style, reeling off the next two sets to move within one match of defending his crown and winning a 16th Grand Slam title.
Starter done, it was time for the main course. Federer and Nadal’s 40th meeting, and somehow their first at Wimbledon since their epic 2008 final.
Like two boxers sizing up their opponent, the pair tip-toed around in what was ultimately a cagey first set, with only one break point coming and going for Federer before it headed to a tie-break.
The shackles came off in a high-quality breaker, and the five points Federer reeled off in a row were enough to hand the 37-year-old the opening set.
Typically, Nadal responded in the second, and his decision to stand further back on Federer’s serve paid dividends as he broke twice to level it up at one-set all. Only one winner from here, right?
Against expectations, Federer brushed off the disappointment of that 6-1 set and wrestled the initiative back, winning the lengthier rallies and baseline exchanges against a player so used to grinding his opponents down.
Federer took the third set 6-3 and edged ever closer in the fourth, breaking in the third game and then almost sealing it in the ninth, only for Nadal to save two match points and tell Federer he would have to do it on his own serve.
Arguably the best game of the match followed. It was certainly the tensest, and after Federer saved break point he saw two more match points come and go. But on the fifth, a Nadal backlong went long and it was all over after three hours and six minutes on Centre Court.
Nadal still edges this grandest of rivalries 25-15, but it was Federer into a 12th Wimbledon final to face top seed Djokovic.
And so after witnessing two of the greatest go head to head on Friday, we ask ourselves, how do we define Sunday’s rivalry?
In this generation of tennis it was Federer who set the pace and Nadal who followed suit, and perhaps that is why this match-up is looked upon with such gushing eyes. Then came Djokovic, undeterred, and able to climb a summit no other player could reach in taking on these two and more often than not: winning.
Djokovic and Nadal hold arguably the greatest rivalry, having met 54 times (with the former leading 28-26) including some of the most gruelling and intense finals in history – namely the 2012 Australian Open final.
But Djokovic-Federer is far more difficult to define. They have met 47 times, with Djokovic also ahead in that 25-22, facing one another in 15 Grand Slam matches, of which four have been finals. Only Federer has beaten Djokovic at every Grand Slam. Likewise, only Djokovic has beaten Federer at every Grand Slam.
Sunday’s showpiece will be the fifth Grand Slam final and a fourth meeting at Wimbledon, with Djokovic last victorious here in the 2015 final. The numbers could go on and on and on.
Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer
Image credit: Getty Images
So perhaps Sunday's final will be dubbed as the King against the pretender to the throne, or maybe the ‘GOAT’ against the man who so desperately wants the crown himself.
“He just wants to be like Roger (Federer),” Nick Kyrgios said earlier this year. “For me personally I feel like he just wants to be liked so much that I just can’t stand him.
“He’s an unbelievable player, he’s a champion of the sport; one of the greatest we’ll ever see. He probably will, honestly, I reckon he will get the Grand Slam count, I reckon he will overpass Federer.”
And so, while it is difficult to put a label on this Federer-Djokovic rivalry, what we could see on Sunday is a defining moment in the race to top the all-time Grand Slam list.
All-time Grand Slam titles: Men’s singles
- Roger Federer: 20
- Rafael Nadal: 18
- Novak Djokovic: 15
- Pete Sampras: 14
- Roy Emerson: 12
Federer is five above Djokovic on 20, but also five years older, meaning time is on the Serbian’s side. However, a six-Slam gap sounds far more daunting than four.
It’s all on the line in their 48th meeting, and Djokovic must shut off the fact he is facing Wimbledon’s darling and channel all that energy into lifting a 16th Grand Slam title. It’s an impossible match to call, so perhaps that’s why we can’t define this rivalry either.