Roger Federer needs a quick kill in entrancing duel with Rafael Nadal

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The 37-year-old’s knees may not be up to the Spaniard’s ploy of taking Friday’s Wimbledon semi-final to five gruelling sets

Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer in an epic Wimbledon final in 2008 – the last time they played each other in the tournament. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/the Guardian

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have not met at Wimbledon since 2008, when the Spaniard prevailed in a five-set final stretched over four hours and 48 minutes of almost unbearable magnificence. Eleven years on they meet again in Friday’s semi-final and, whatever Federer’s millions of adoring fans think, Nadal should win again.

They are not the players they were. But neither are those around them, young and old. The teenagers and other young pretenders left long ago; still lurking, are familiar foes, most threateningly Novak Djokovic, less so Roberto Bautista Agut, in the other semi-final. But this is the match that will entrance Centre Court, the 40th of their rivalry, and – who knows? – maybe their last. It is one to savour.

Sport is not just about statistics but there is no ignoring the bottom line: the result. And, again to the dismay of the Federer faithful, nearly all the numbers favour Nadal.

Their story has always been too simply and misleadingly told. It is true no one plays tennis like Federer, the almost divine presence of his sport, but Nadal is more than the muscle-proud Mallorcan with the fierce gaze and the killing forehand.

The perception that Nadal has built his game solely on rigid principles of raw aggression, full of high-revolution top spin and lacking Federer’s art and subtlety, was always misguided. He is a deep thinker who has soaked up much wisdom from his uncle, Toni, as well as the later additions to his coaching team, the former world No 1 Carlos Moya, who reached the fourth round at Wimbledon in 2004, and the former doubles specialist Francisco Roig.

As Federer said: “Nadal has improved so much over the years on this surface. He’s playing also very different than he used to. 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.”

For 20 minutes on a practice court on Thursday morning one could almost hear the Nadal brains trust ticking over as the two-times champion metronomically hit one sliced backhand after another, skimming the net and directed to the corners, where he hopes to pin Federer and force his 37-year-old knees to dip repeatedly on the wearing turf.

It is this attention to detail that helped the master of clay beat Novak Djokovic on the supposedly unfriendly hard court of Flushing Meadows in 2010, when he beefed up his backhand defence to make him less vulnerable along the baseline, and put an extra few mph on his racket. The tinkering worked then and might do so on Friday.

Rafael Nadal practises hitting the ball to the corners when he hopes to pin Roger Federer in Friday’s semi-final. Photograph: Carl Recine/Reuters

Although Federer says Nadal is a quicker point-finisher than he once was, it is likely he wants the rallies – and the match – to go long. If they are short, if the drama is over in less than the full term of five sets – Federer will probably win. The quick kill is his refuge.

Federer has spent nine hours 23 minutes getting here, losing his first set of the tournament against Lloyd Harris and the opening set in his win over Kei Nishikori on Wednesday. But he has otherwise looked superb. Nadal has been on 10 hours and 44 minutes and dropped only one set, against Nick Kyrgios in the most combustible match of the draw.

History tells us that only two of their 14 encounters in majors have finished quickly: at the Australian Open in 2014 and at Roland Garros last month. Nadal won them both.

Another uncomfortable statistic for Federer is that he has not beaten Nadal in any of their four grand slam semi-finals. The only time they have met at Wimbledon at this stage of the fortnight, in 2005, is so long ago as to be peripheral to the debate. Nevertheless Nadal goes in a slight favourite, trusting his body to hold up after a year of physical hell in 2018.

There are not many matches when he plays pain-free but he has moved with much of his old dash in his five wins so far. Federer, of course, will float and dart in his inimitable style. Whoever wins, their embrace at the end will be heartfelt and, if it is their final fight, they will reflect on one of the great rivalries in sport with pride.

As Nadal said after beating Sam Querrey in the quarter-finals: “The opportunities to play against each other every time are less but we’re still here. I know he’s playing well. He feels comfortable here. And me, too. I had a lot of defeats. I had a lot of victories. Relationship never changed. Always big respect. Good friendship, relationship. That’s all. Probably it will not change if I win, if I lose.”

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