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Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have defined the sport of tennis for the better part of two decades and on Friday they will go head-to-head for the 40th time. Nadal leads the rivalry 24-15 but Federer can take heart from winning five of their last six meetings.
In terms of Grand Slam encounters, Nadal leads 10-3. But if the clay at Roland Garros is taken out of the equation, it’s actually closer – 4-3 for the 33-year-old Spaniard.
The dynamic of this meeting on grass at Wimbledon should favour Nadal – he has looked slightly the sharper player during the event and beat Federer 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 in the French Open semi-finals last month.
Looking at the psychology of their head-to-head, did that victory in Paris – on a surface that Nadal has dominated in a way that no other player in history has dominated on any surface – erase the five wins in a row that Federer had inflicted on him dating back to the Basel indoor final in 2015?
Federer was clearly in Nadal’s head with those five consecutive wins – Basel (2015), Aussie Open (2017), Indian Wells (2017), Miami (2017) and Shanghai (2017). From his point of view he goes into Friday’s encounter thinking that the French Open loss was: 1. – not unexpected considering Nadal’s past success on the surface and at Roland Garros, and 2. – it was a windy day with unusually blustery conditions making it an outlier and not really in any way a good reference for their future match-ups.
As for Nadal, he has to believe he has set things straight again by beating Federer on the Court Philippe Chatrier and that he can now resume the regular service that saw him win five in a row – losing only one set – from 2013 Indian Wells until the 2014 Aussie Open semi-finals.
There are two stand-out anomalies of their rivalry: 1. – they have never met at the US Open and 2. – they have not played at Wimbledon since that one-for-the-ages 6-4, 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-7(8), 9-7 victory by Nadal into the gloaming in the 2008 final.
Here are highlights and lowlights of their rivalry:
FEDERER: Highlight: It couldn’t get much better for Federer than his 2017 Australian Open final 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 victory. It was the championship match of a Grand Slam event at a time (he was 35) when he was coming back from a six-month break from the tour to fortify his knee. He seemed unlikely to ever again triumph at a major – and certainly not to do it by beating his nemesis and end a four-and-a-half year (15 events) Grand Slam title drought.
FEDERER lowlight: It could hardly get worse than a humiliating 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 loss in the 2008 French Open final when the great Swiss simply had zero answers against his Spanish rival’s brutal game on the terre battue. There’s a school of thought that believes Federer might have won the classic 2008 Wimbledon final four weeks later if he hadn’t had the hangover of the awful drubbing he took in Paris. It did seem to take him two sets (losing both) in the final to regain the confidence to play more like himself on the grass at the All England Club.
A close second to that 2009 Roland Garros defeat was his 7-5, 3-6, 7-6(3), 3-6, 6-2 loss in the 2009 Australian Open final when he dissolved into tears at the post-match presentation ceremony.
NADAL Highlight: This is easy. He has only won twice at Wimbledon compared to an almost incomprehensible 12 times at the French Open – and one of them was the enduring classic against Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final with the scoreboard lights brilliant in the near darkness at the finish. It just couldn’t get any better.
NADAL Lowlight: It has to be the loss in the 2017 Australian Open final. It’s the only Grand Slam he has not won twice and it was a golden opportunity against Federer at a time when he was utterly dominant against the Swiss – excluding their late-season 2015 Basel indoor final, he had won their previous five matches and 11 of 12 sets.
WIMBLEDON SEMI-FINAL 2019: An remarkable 15 years since their first meeting in Miami in 2004, Federer and Nadal face each other on Friday for a 40th time. The Labrokes bookmaker in London on Thursday had Nadal as an odds-on 4/6 favourite while Federer is 23/20.
Both players said the right things ahead of the highly-anticipated clash. Federer offered, “Rafa really can hurt anybody on any surface. I mean, he’s that good. He’s not just a clay-court specialist.”
As for Nadal, he said, “I just expect to play against probably the best player of the history in this surface and know that I have to play my best if I want to have chances to try to be in that final.”
A last thought on the greatness of these two living legends. Has any player in history, as Federer has done, made the semi-finals of both the French Open and Wimbledon back-to-back less than a month from his 38th birthday? Equally, has any player in history ever won the French Open and then backed it up by reaching the Wimbledon semi-finals at age 33 like Nadal?
While Ladbrokes seems to be leaning pretty heavily in favour of Nadal, there seem to be so many valid arguments each way that it feels like a toss-up in what could possibly be the final Federer – Nadal match-up of their careers at a Grand Slam event.
CANADIANS AT WIMBLEDON
The past two Grand Slam tournaments have provided surprises for Canada’s top tennis players – especially given how ascendant they have been in recent times with the likes of Bianca Andreescu, Félix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov emerging big-time on their respective tours.
First, at the French Open there was only one match victory by a Canadian player – Andreescu’s two-day 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 win over Czech lucky loser Marie Bouzkova before she had to withdraw from the event with her ongoing shoulder issue. This blogger thought at the time that a good bet – considering the futures of Andreescu, Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov as well as of Genie Bouchard, Milos Raonic and the up-and-coming younger generation – would be that Canadian players would never again, in total, win as few as a single match at any Grand Slam event over the next five years. (Note: the only Canadians in the main draws at Roland Garros this year were Andreescu, Bouchard and Shapovalov.)
That bet would have been a good one at Wimbledon because Raonic won three matches and Auger-Aliassime two for a total of five – but even that was somewhat disappointing.
It would have taken a peerless clairvoyant to predict that the top-three Canadian men – all seeded – would lose to No. 26-ranked Guido Pella, No. 66 Ugo Humbert and No. 77 Ricardas Berankis. But those are the players who respectively beat No. 15 seed Raonic, No. 19 Auger-Aliassime and No. 29 Shapovalov.
Milos Raonic: The day after his player’s devastating 3-6, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6(3), 8-6 loss to Pella in the round-of-16, Raonic’s coach Fabrice Santoro raved about how well Raonic had played in the first two sets. “That’s the best two sets he’s played since we’ve been together,” the 46-year-old Frenchman said. “He was relaxed and really letting go with his shots, volleyed really well and did everything that we have been working on together in practice.” Raonic’s back issues going into Wimbledon likely contributed to his eventual “running out of gas” decline against the tenacious Argentine. Hopefully playing two-of-three sets matches at summer hard-court events will have the 28-year-old current ATP No. 17 (No. 21 in next Monday’s rankings) in better shape heading into the last Grand Slam of the year at the US Open.
Félix Auger-Aliassime: The 18-year-old Montrealer was a sizeable favourite heading into his third-round match against Humbert but the occasion got to him. He wasn’t able to put forward his best tennis against a 21-year-old opponent who was really on his grass-court game despite it being his first year on the surface.
It should be a minor speed-bump in the Auger-Aliassime growth as a player – and it shouldn’t be forgotten that he beat Gilles Simon, Nick Kyrgios, Grigor Dimitrov and Stefanos Tsitsipas among others in putting together an 8-3 record in his first year of grass-court tournaments as a professional.
Denis Shapovalov: It’s hard to believe the talented 20-year-old went 0-3 at grass-court events in 2019 – losing to nemesis Jan-Lennard Struff in Stuttgart, Feliciano Lopez at Queen’s Club and Berankis at Wimbledon. Getting back onto the familiar hard courts of the North American summer should be exactly what he needs to get his game kick-started again. The good news – he will have only 10 ranking points to defend on grass in 2020.
Vasek Pospisil: It was an unlucky draw that pitted Pospisil against compatriot Auger-Aliassime in the Wimbledon first round. For a guy who hadn’t played since last November and had back surgery in January, the 29-year-old from Vancouver played well in the 5-7, 6-2, 6-4, 6-3 loss to Auger-Aliassime. His ranking – No. 187 – is unflattering at the moment but he can use a protected ranking of No. 73 for eight more tournaments over the next nine months and will play Challenger events – next week in Gatineau, Que., and in two weeks in Granby, Que., – without those counting against his protected ranking entry allotment.
Brayden Schnur: The 24 year old from Pickering, Ont., got into the main draw via the lucky-loser route, enabling him to play the first Grand Slam event of his career after four previous attempts at qualifying.
In the main draw, he faced retiring 34-year-old Marcos Baghdatis and play well but not quite well enough – or long enough – and lost 6-2, 6-4, 6-4 to the tiring, 34-year-old Cypriot.
This week Schnur is back in action at the Challenger level at the $75,000 National Bank event in Winnipeg as he strives to finally get his current No. 112 ranking (No. 105 live ranking) into the top-100 for the first time.
Genie Bouchard: This was hardly the way the 25-year-old Bouchard would have wanted to celebrate the fifth anniversary of her reaching the Wimbledon final. But going in with only one match on grass – a 6-2, 6-0 loss to then-ranked No. 99 Fiona Ferro of France in the qualifying at Eastbourne – it was probably no great shock when she lost a close one 6-3, 5-7, 8-6 to No. 61-ranked Tamara Zidansek, 21, of Slovenia in the first round.
Bouchard is entered in the $250,000 WTA International Series event on red clay in Lausanne, Switzerland, next week. A year ago she reached the semi-finals of the same event, only in Gstaad, so she will have 110 ranking points to defend.
TEBBUTT PET PEEVE
Helen Wills, the great American player from the 1920s and 1930s – 19 Grand Slam titles between 1923 and 1938 – is referred to by many, including ESPN on its Wimbledon coverage, as Helen Wills Moody. Wills was married to Frederick Moody from 1927 to 1937 but subsequently married Aidan Roark in 1939.
She won Grand Slam titles before and after being married to Moody – so why should she be known as Helen Wills Moody. She should be – plain and simple – Helen Wills.
American star Chris Evert married British tennis player John Lloyd and was known as Chris Evert Lloyd until they divorced. No one would ever think of calling her Chris Evert Lloyd these days – she’s Chris Evert and Helen Wills should be Helen Wills. Broadcasters and other media should get the message, especially at this time of year. Wills won eight Wimbledon titles, one shy of Martina Navratilova’s record nine.
WIMBLEDON POST CARD
And the 2019 winner is… the Thai Tho restaurant on Wimbledon High Street. It took first place in the annual Wimbledon Village Tennis Window Competition with an artwork featuring the highly-animated tennis ball pictured above.
(Feature photo: Mauricio Paiz)