Forget the score. Forget how close Sam Querrey came to pinching the first set and turning this match on its head. And forget the thrilling array of shots played by both men — cross-court winners, feather-light drop volleys and, yes, Colt 45 serves that spat down the middle of the court, leaving little puffs of chalk rising into the still evening air. Because only one fact really matters after the fourth and final gentlemen’s singles quarter-final: for the first time since 2008 and the greatest tennis match of all-time, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer will meet at Wimbledon.
This was an entertaining quarter-final between two in-form players with drastically different styles and strategies, but it was only ever destined to be a linking point, a brief dash preceding a match that the sporting world has clamoured for for over a decade. First Federer took care of business against Kei Nishikori. And then Nadal fulfilled his end of the bargain, blasting past Querrey 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 to set up a long-awaited meeting with his oldest and greatest rival.
It took Nadal all of ten seconds to leave No.1 Court before he was grilled on the challenge ahead. “It is great, it would ave been difficult to imagine being in this situation again but here we are,” he smiled. “I am obviously excited about the victory today, but I am also excited to play Roger again at Wimbledon, after such a long time.”
Querrey did his best to scupper the fairytale semi-final. Playing in just his fourth Grand Slam quarter-final, having memorably knocked Andy Murray out at the same stage two summers ago, he gambled on an understandably low-margin strategy: repeatedly attacking the net and swinging hungrily for the lines at every opportunity. There was never going to be any point in armwrestling Nadal from beyond the baseline. There is a reason that turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.
The trouble is that his aggression left swathes of green grass for Nadal to blast his groundstrokes into. And, in just the third game of the match, one kamikaze charge to the net saw Nadal unload a bamboozling cross-court forehand that spat away from Querrey with the lethal accuracy of a honing missile. The American did break back later in the set, valiantly defending a set point and giving himself a fine chance of snatching the set, only to again falter in the very next game.
The missed opportunity rankled him. Nadal rattled through the next two sets in almost the same time it took him to win the first, soaking up Querrey’s 22 aces and wrapping things up in a fraction over two hours.
The most encouraging aspect of Nadal’s relatively seamless run to the final four has not been the standard of tennis he has played. The aggressive counterpunching, blistering groundstrokes and fine drop shots make for a beguiling repertoire which we are, by now, intimately familiar with. His opponents know exactly what they are going to get. Instead, it is his movement that has impressed. He has been gliding around behind the baseline with the elegance of a figure skater.
That has not always been the case. His US Open title defence was last year ended by a knee injury. He then underwent ankle surgery in November. He returned in the new year, only to suffer another issue with his knee at Indian Wells, forcing him to arrive in Paris with precious few matches under his belt. Much like Murray, Nadal’s admirably uncompromising approach to the sport has not always proved sustainable.
Yet, having conquered the clay courts of Roland Garros for a frankly ludicrous twelfth time, Nadal has found himself fit enough to extend his form into the third Slam of the season. He has dropped just one set to get to this point — in an impressive and emotional victory over the enigmatic Nick Kyrgios — and has arguably reached a higher level than Federer at this year’s Championships.
The pair will meet on Friday in a rerun of the memorable 2008 final, a match won 6-4, 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-7(8), 9-7 in close to five hours and widely heralded as the greatest in the history of the sport. The winner will then play either Novak Djokovic or Roberto Bautista Agut in Sunday’s final.
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