Nadal no longer just a clay-court specialist, says Federer

Roger Federer, 38 next month, celebrating after beating Kei Nishikori 4-6, 6-1, 6-4, 6-4 in the Wimbledon quarter-finals on Wednesday. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Roger Federer, 38 next month, celebrating after beating Kei Nishikori 4-6, 6-1, 6-4, 6-4 in the Wimbledon quarter-finals on Wednesday. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LONDON • The resemblance was uncanny, Roger Federer steering a backhand winner past his opponent from the exact same spot at Centre Court, on which he planted his feet 11 years earlier when playing the same stroke to save a match point in that unforgettable Wimbledon final against Rafael Nadal.

The Swiss, now only 27 days short of his 38th birthday, continues to defy age.

Still, the 20-time Grand Slam champion competes at the highest level, drawing gasps of wonderment from spectators as he dashes around the grass court.

The aforementioned shot was merely one of countless moments of brilliance during a 4-6, 6-1, 6-4, 6-4 quarter-final victory on Wednesday against Japan's Kei Nishikori to secure a long-awaited first Wimbledon meeting with rival Nadal since 2008.

That final remains one of the most celebrated matches in tennis history with the Spaniard closing out a five-set victory in the gloaming. This time, though, there will be no worries about fading light as Centre Court is now equipped with a retractable roof and lights.

Although the All England Club has changed, their remarkable rivalry endures. Today, the 40th edition of one of sport's greatest match-ups will get under way, providing a much-needed dose of excitement to a men's draw that has frankly been quite mundane so far.

The contest is particularly intriguing as the pair have faced off only on hard and clay courts since 2008, but Federer is well aware of the challenge posed.

  • BIG THREE STILL REIGN

  • WIMBLEDON 2008 SEEDS

    1 Roger Federer (Final)

    2 Rafael Nadal (Champion)

    3 Novak Djokovic (2nd rd)

    4 Nikolay Davydenko (1st rd)

    5 David Ferrer (3rd rd)

    6 Andy Roddick (2nd rd)

    7 David Nalbandian (1st rd)

    8 Richard Gasquet (4th rd)

    9 James Blake (2nd rd)

    10 Marcos Baghdatis (4th rd)

    12 Andy Murray (Q-finals)

    31 Feliciano Lopez (Q-finals)

    Unseeded q-finalists Mario Ancic, Marat Safin, Rainer Schuttler, Arnaud Clement


    WIMBLEDON 2019 SEEDS

    1 Novak Djokovic (S-finals)

    2 Roger Federer (S-finals)

    3 Rafael Nadal (S-finals)

    4 Kevin Anderson (3rd rd)

    5 Dominic Thiem (1st rd)

    6 Alexander Zverev (1st rd)

    7 Stefanos Tsitsipas (1st rd)

    8 Kei Nishikori (Q-finals)

    9 John Isner (2nd rd)

    10 Karen Khachanov (3rd rd)

    21 David Goffin (Q-finals)

    23 Roberto Bautista Agut (S-finals)

    26 Guido Pella (Q-finals)

    Unseeded q-finalist Sam Querrey

"Rafa has improved so much over the years on this surface," the eight-time Wimbledon winner, who now also has a record 100 match wins at the Grand Slam, said. "He's also playing very different than he used to. We haven't played each other in a long, long time on this surface.

"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 sort of healthy he's stayed. A lot of people were saying in 2008, 'Oh, it's the end'. Similar to me in 2009. But we're still here, so it's nice to play each other again.

"Rafa really can hurt anybody on any surface. He's that good. He's not just a clay-court specialist."

Of his milestone, the oldest man to get to the final four of a Slam singles tournament since Jimmy Connors called it "special", adding: "It's been a lot of years I've been coming here (his debut was in 1999). That's given me the opportunity to win a lot, naturally."

Also into the last four is world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, but as special as the "big three" are, the lack of challenge they face is pitiful, with this year's French Open finalist Dominic Thiem the only active player under 28 to have contested a Slam final in the last 18 months.

While Federer conceded that the trio's continued dominance was not a "regular time in tennis in the men's game", the former world No. 1, however, believes there has been a lack of talent coming through the ranks.

"I don't think we would have thought that me, Novak and Rafa were going to be so solid and so dominant for so many years," he said.

"No. 1, that stopped a lot of runs from the younger guys. No. 2, I'm not sure, were they as talented as Rafa, Novak, and myself? Maybe also not... I just think it's kind of tough to get to the top because Novak and Rafa are still so, so good."

NYTIMES, THE TIMES OF LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 12, 2019, with the headline 'Nadal no longer just a clay-court specialist, says Federer'. Print Edition | Subscribe