It took more than three tense, nerve-shredding hours of the highest quality tennis for the Swiss to wrap up a 7-6 1-6 6-3 6-4 victory.
Federer will now face Novak Djokovic in Sunday’s final after the Serb beat Roberto Bautista Agut 6-2 4-6 6-3 6-2 earlier Friday.
There was so much anticipation ahead of the showdown as two of the greatest to ever play the sport were meeting for the first time at Wimbledon since their epic 2008 final — considered by many to be the greatest tennis match of all time.
That Nadal and Federer — aged 33 and 37, respectively — are not only still at the top of their own games, but also at the top of the sport more than a decade later is a testament to both their skill and dedication.
“I’m exhausted,” Federer told the BBC after the match. “It was tough at the end. Rafa played some unbelievable shots to stay in the match. The match was played at a very high level.
“The biggest points in the match went my way. There were tight ones and long rallies. That first set was huge to get the lead and try to protect it. He came back very strongly in the second set. It was a joy to play today.”
Turning back the clock
Both players began the match by rattling off service games with very little trouble and it took until the eighth game, with Nadal serving at 3-4, before either player conjured up a break point.
It came and went in the blink of an eye as Nadal bludgeoned a forehand that Federer had no hope of returning.
With no breaks of serve the set went to a tiebreak and the first point immediately drew the mind back to that final 11 years ago.
The pair exchanged stunning groundstrokes, before Nadal improbably tracked down Federer’s exquisite drop volley and prodded the ball past him down the line.
But, just as he did twice back in 2008, Federer came from behind to take the tiebreak, playing four points of unanswerable quality to take the first set.
While the first set was a tight, tense affair, the second was anything but. Both men were made to save break points in their opening service games and while Nadal held his concentration, Federer lost his.
The Swiss’ shots became wild and loose, unable to withstand Nadal’s relentless power. Two breaks of serve followed and the set quickly ran away from Federer, with Nadal wrapping it up with a straightforward hold to love.
With both players in the twilight of their illustrious careers, neither know how many more opportunities like these they will have to get into grand slam finals.
At the start of the third set, Federer and Nadal began to play the tennis their great rivalry has become known for over the years and both players would have been proud of in their prime.
Nadal’s shots seemed to have more bite to them and Federer all of a sudden had an extra spring in his step.
It was Federer who elevated his game to another level, breaking Nadal’s serve and then going on to save two break points on his own the following game.
It was to be the turning point in the set and Federer knew it. Usually so calm and collected on court, he let out a loud “come on” and pumped his fist in the direction of his box.
He held serve on two more occasions to edge ahead in what was quickly becoming another special evening on Wimbledon’s Center Court.
The momentum was now well and truly with Federer and he seemed to be getting the better of Nadal, who began to cut a frustrated figure and starting to look powerless to stop the magic his opponent was wielding with his racket.
An early break of serve in the fourth set compounded the Spaniard’s misery and from there Federer never once looked like relinquishing the lead.
Nadal did save two match points in stunning fashion when serving at 3-5 down but, in the end, it was only delaying the inevitable.
Incredibly, the pair saved their very best tennis until last. Federer was forced to save one break point when serving for a place in the final and Nadal a match point with some of the most breathless tennis Center Court is likely to witness.
When Nadal hit the decisive backhand long past the baseline, the crowd rose to their feet and gave the two players a raucous standing ovation that went on for several minutes.
It might not have been 2008, but at times it wasn’t far off.
Djokovic dumps Bautista Agut
Defending champion Djokovic recovered from a second-set wobble against Bautista Agut as he targets a fifth Wimbledon title and 16th grand slam overall.
The Serb looked to be at his very best for long periods of the match but Bautista Agut, not at all overawed by the occasion in his first grand slam semifinal, matched his opponent’s brilliance at times.
But the unrelenting Djokovic was too strong for the 23rd seed and will meet the winner of Federer vs.Nadal in their first clash at Wimbledon since the epic 2008 final.
Facing Djokovic was described as like playing against a “wall” by his quarterfinal opponent David Goffin, and Bautista Agut quickly discovered what the Belgian was talking about.
There has arguably never been a better returner of serve in the history of the game as Djokovic and few can match his speed, athleticism and flexibility on a tennis court.
In the opening exchanges, Bautista Agut seemed to be feeling the pressure of needing to hit two or three extra shots before finding a way through Djokovic’s defense.
Four nervous errors on his forehand — his favored side and by quite some distance his most effective shot — allowed Djokovic to break in his first service game.
When playing against the world No. 1, every shot needs to be executed to near-perfection and too many of Bautista Agut’s were far from perfect.
Forehands were too short or too wide and attempted drop shots were sitting up nicely for Djokovic in the middle of the court.
In the blink of eye, the Spaniard was two breaks of serve down and after 35 minutes the first set belonged to Djokovic.
Second set shock
It felt as though this semifinal would flash past Bautista Agut before he would even have the chance to start playing but as Djokovic’s level dropped at the start of the second set, the Spaniard pounced.
Perhaps the tennis gods were smiling down on Bautista Agut, too, as a string broke on Djokovic’s racket when serving at 15-30 to gift his opponent two break points.
Bautista Agut capitalized and, despite squandering two more break points in Djokovic’s next service game, held firm and saw out the remainder of the set in confident fashion to level the match.
By the time the third set was well under way, signs of frustration were beginning to creep into Djokovic’s demeanor.
After a lazy volley at 2-2, he mistakenly let Bautista Agut’s forehand sail past him and looked back to see it land well inside the baseline.
Djokovic shrugged his shoulders and raised his arms, glaring in the direction of his supporters’ box.
But what makes Djokovic such a nightmare for opponents is his ability to raise his game when it matters. Just a game later he broke Bautista Agut to make it 4-2 with an emphatic overhead smash and pumped his fist into the air.
Djokovic was forced to saved two straight break points in his next service game, the second coming with the 45th shot of a brutally long rally — by far the longest of the match — crunching a stunning backhand down the line.
He held serve two points later and let out a bellowing, cathartic roar that reverberated around Centre Court.
That, you felt, was that. With the third set on a knife edge, Djokovic came out on top and Bautista Agut looked deflated.
The Serb raced into a 5-1 lead in the fourth, before eventually booking his place in Sunday’s showpiece final with his third match point.