LONDON -- After over three hours, and staving off four match points, Rafael Nadal finally made one mistake too many Friday. He hit his backhand long and it was all over. Roger Federer would advance to his 12th Wimbledon final and Nadal would be sent packing, along with his hopes for Grand Slam No. 19.
After a 14-minute final game, the longtime rivals embraced briefly at the net. The capacity crowd at Centre Court showered both Nadal and Federer with cheers and a standing ovation that lasted for several minutes. As Federer went back on the court to wave and pump his fists in appreciation following his 7-6 (3), 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory, a discouraged-looking Nadal changed out of his sweat-soaked shirt, quickly packed up his bag and headed for the exit.
It had been an impressive several weeks for the No. 2-ranked Nadal. He won his 12th French Open in June and was putting on a dominant show over the fortnight here on grass. Prior to Friday's semifinal, he had dropped just one set throughout the tournament (to Nick Kyrgios in the second round). His quarterfinal victory over Sam Querrey was a dazzling display of his power and versatile game -- he broke the American, known for his big serve, six times. Fans and analysts were starting to speculate on whether Nadal had returned to championship form.
With 18 major titles, Nadal is just two trophies behind Federer for most all time among men in the sport. And, perhaps shockingly, this is the narrowest the gap has been between the two since July 2004, when Federer had two and Nadal had none. Fifteen years later, they are the two winningest men in Grand Slam history, with Novak Djokovic (who advanced to the final earlier Friday) nipping at their heels with 15. To say the Big Three, as they are collectively known, have completely ruled the ATP would be a vast understatement. Just ask, oh, anyone else on tour.
However, Nadal's supremacy has been predominantly on one surface in recent years. Known as the "King of Clay," the 33-year-old Spaniard hasn't had quite the same success outside of Roland Garros, despite his overall career résumé. He won the Australian Open in 2009, the US Open in 2010, 2013 and 2017, and is twice a victor at the All England Club, but he hasn't held the trophy since 2010. He hasn't even made the final since 2011. But it seemed like this could finally be the year he would make his triumphant return.
However, it would be Federer -- his familiar foe -- who would stop what could have been a magical summer. It was their 40th career meeting, and it lived up to all the hype built up over the previous 48 hours.
"Well, [it's] been a tough one," Nadal said, clearly disappointed, after the match. "I had my chances. He played [a] little bit better than me, I think. Probably I didn't play as good as I did in the previous rounds, and he played well. So he deserves it. Congrats to him."
Nadal owns a 24-16 record against Federer and beat him in their most recent meeting, in the French Open semifinals, but prior to that, he hadn't emerged victorious over the Swiss star since the 2014 Australian Open. Nadal famously beat Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final, in a match that spanned almost five hours and is considered by many to be one of the best matches in history, if not the best. But they somehow hadn't met on grass since that epic duel. Federer, understandably, seemed more jovial about Friday's match.
"It's always very, very cool to play against Rafa here, especially [as we] haven't played in so long," Federer said. "It lived up to the hype, especially coming out of the gates, we were both playing very well. Then the climax at the end with the crazy last game, [and] some tough rallies there. It had everything at the end, which was great, I guess. I'm just relieved it's all over at this point.
"But it's definitely, definitely going to go down as one of my favorite matches to look back at, again, because it's Rafa, it's at Wimbledon, the crowds were into it, great weather."
So for now, as Federer prepares to face Djokovic on Sunday, Nadal will leave Wimbledon one match earlier than he wanted, for the second year in a row. He'll have a little time before getting ready for the hard-court season and the year's final Slam in New York. He didn't speak much about his goals for the rest of the season, or beyond, following the loss, but he made it clear just how much it stung to be so close and yet so far from winning again in London, or even just outside of Paris.
"[I'm] sad for the loss because for me was another opportunity," he said. "But at the same time, I [will] create another opportunity to be in another final of a Grand Slam. Just accept that [today] was not my day. I played a great event. I take this in a positive way.
"[At] the same time, today is sad because, for me, I know chances are not forever. Last year, I had chances here. I had another one [this year], and I was not able to convert to win it one more time here."