Of all the tennis rivalries in the modern era, none is as enduring nor as popular as the one between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. The two most successful players in the history of the men’s game, with 38 Grand Slam titles between them, these are the men who will define the modern era, even if the winner of their semi-final here will likely go on to lose to Novak Djokovic in the final. With every bit of respect due to the Serbian world #1, no two players in men’s tennis move the fans like these two.
It helps that Federer and Nadal are two such different players; the Swiss veteran possessed of an exquisite touch in his shots and an ability to see angles that defy physics, while his Mallorcan rival delivers powerful groundstrokes and pugnacious endurance. They last faced off at Wimbledon in 2008, and fans must since have assumed, while Nadal recovered from injuries and Federer seemed to approach retirement, that it would be the final meeting on Centre Court. But here they are again, and both are still at the top of the game.
A meeting in the Wimbledon semi-final means that only one of these two can go on to compete for the title. Below, we’ll try to figure out which of them it will be, and which are the best bets to make.
Federer the crowd’s favourite on his preferred surface
Roger Federer first won the Wimbledon Men’s Singles in 2003, and has picked up the famous trophy another seven times since, most recently in 2017. Just a month short of his 38th birthday, if he were to win his next two matches he would surpass Ken Rosewall as the oldest player ever to win a men’s Grand Slam title. How can he keep doing this, at an age when most male players have accepted the passage of time to enjoy an easier life on the seniors’ circuit, or been forced by injury to lay down their racquets?
Part of it is in the fact that Federer doesn’t need to run, or expend much energy at all on court. His groundstrokes are so well-placed, and his anticipation so acute, that he seems able to pause time and teleport around the court. This is a particularly useful talent on lawn courts where, if you hit a shot well enough, your opponent just won’t get it back. He may be giving up close to five years to Nadal here, but it’s hard to bet against the GOAT on this court, and Unibet’s odds of 6/5 on Federer might well be worth closer investigation.
Nadal leaving behind grass-court worries
When Rafael Nadal won this competition in 2008 and, after injury prevented him defending it, regained the title in 2010, he seemed to have laid to rest the idea that he was “merely” a clay-court specialist. However, his record at SW19 has been patchy since then, with first-round exits against journeyman opponents and promising runs which just petered out. In 2018, though, he reached the semi-final only to lose a 10-8 final set to the eventual champion, Djokovic. One year on, he’s in the last four again, this time against his career rival.
While Federer may hold the most career Slam titles (20 to Nadal’s 18), the Spanish player actually leads the personal head-to-head, and by some distance too. Of the forty times they’ve faced each other across the net, Nadal has won 24, Federer 16. They’ve met three times at Wimbledon, all in finals, with the most recent being that 2008 epic that Nadal won in five sets. The players are obviously well matched, but weirdly, most bookmakers seem to feel that this match will be over quickly. However, while both players have been cutting a swath through the competition, neither of them has been facing such steep opposition as they face today. You can get 21/10 with Dafabet on this one to go to five sets; that may be a wise bet to make.
First set will tell us a lot, but not the whole story
As already mentioned, the three meetings these players have had at this venue have all been finals. Notably, two of those went the full distance; in 2008, Nadal won the first two sets before being pegged back to 2-2 while in 2007, Federer led 1-0 and 2-1, but Nadal twice drew level prior to his opponent’s final-set win. This is instructive because often, the tone for a match is set by whoever wins the opening stanza. However, a match can have a lot of twists and turns before the final ball is hit, and there’s reason to believe that this match will fall likewise.
What we can be confident of is that the first set is liable to be close. Both players have been ruthless in dispatching opponents both seeded and unseeded, and now that they face one another, neither will be thinking about taking a backwards step. For that reason, it would be no shock to see the opening set going to a tiebreak; with Betway, Nadal is 4/1 to win that set 7-6. He’s won the first set in each match he has played so far, and we can see that pattern continuing – whatever might happen in the rest of the match. One thing’s for sure: after a hiatus of eleven years, it’s reassuring to see “Fedal” back in action on Centre Court.