Imagine watching two insanely gifted tennis players battling it out to the awe and wonder of a responsive Centre Court crowd into the dead of night.
The 2008 Wimbledon final will go down as arguably the greatest match to have ever made it to the screens of Standard Definition television, yet somehow made you feel like you were actually there.
From then, the saying would go, “Roger Federer walked so that Rafael Nadal could run.” The Spanish protagonist announced himself onto the big stage at a time when the All England Club had imprinted Federer’s name in their minds as the world’s best.
And at times in their semi-final meeting on the green grass at Wimbledon eleven years on, both were forced to bring out their very best from years gone by, but in the end, Federer proved timeless in his own slow-paced manner, securing a 4-set victory which, at some point, seemed elusive.
After losing 6-1 in the second set, the omens may have pointed to an incoming capitulation, the sort of self-implosion that would have fit in with the narrative that Federer was past it at this level.
He definitely looked past it in the pair’s semi-final showdown at Roland Garros – his first appearance at the tournament in 4 years – but in his defence, many a player would look out of their depth in Nadal’s playground.
For a lot of people that have watched Federer over the course of his career, feeling like the end is nigh is justifiable – at 37 years of age, his days at the top are numbered, and for him to still be competing against the likes of Nadal and Novak Djokovic is brilliant, if not crazy.
But somehow, even beyond his peak, Federer has found a way to keep up, tying his go-kart to tennis’ roller-coaster and refusing to be left behind.
And on grass, we seem to be living in his world, following his rules and updating his software to compete with the next group of players set to be released. Year after year, the modern game throws up new challenges and opponents, but that hasn’t stopped Federer from qualifying for his 12th Wimbledon final.
The most important lesson from this semi-final classic, found in a rivalry for the ages, is that the numbers and expectations take a backseat when the greats of the game take centre stage, especially when one of those is playing in what seems to be their home away from home.
Federer, defying the weakening effects of old age and frailty, keeps on keeping on, kicking the norms to the curb and relying on his experience and home comforts to help him survive.
That loss in 2008 would have hurt. And for a player who didn’t have a backhand to boast about in that last, epic meeting with Nadal, a lot has happened in that time – he has developed a backhand to boast about, as Nadal found out here, a relentless barrage that in the past wouldn’t have found itself on any Federer highlights reel.
For Nadal, the 6-4 loss in the fourth and final set will feel like a chastening moment. He had played so well throughout the tournament, and having had Federer on the ropes after the second set – forehand winners firmly finding the edges of the inner white lines and service games demonstrating his ruthless will to dominate – how can he forget about this in a heartbeat?
Everything about his game had been fine-tuned for this very encounter – the aggression, power and precision of all the shots in his répertoire, mixed with the pure Spanish emotion and fistbumps, were supposed to blow Federer out of the water and onto the barren land of being so close, yet so far.
But, in the end Nadal was the one checking his surroundings and wondering what he could’ve done differently. Federer’s calm throughout the match showed a familiarity with the sights and sounds of the crowd, the sun beaming on the surface and the ball whistling through the air.
In the end, his ultimate show of emotion suggested relief from what could’ve been an added nail to the coffin, a reminder that his time on the court is slowly running out.
And no matter what happens in the final in the sunshine of Centre Court, Federer will rest in the bosom of his 8 previous title wins, knowing that he will be remembered for years to come.
No amount of predictive thinking or grey-haired conversation will take that away from him. Just the joy of playing in a final – at a venue that has seen him conquer all despite the lack of youth on his side – will decide his fate more than what people may think will happen.
Eleven years ago, many thought he would come out on top. Eleven years on, many thought he would be on his way home. Is it ever easy to predict how these things will play out?