The 2019 Wimbledon fortnight is inching toward its conclusion. The All England Club’s once green courts are showing signs of wear, and a field of 128 has been trimmed down to four contenders. Practice sessions, relegated to another end of the grounds to this point, are held on the courts adjacent to Centre Court, the site where the remaining singles matches will be contested.
One day before he faces Roger Federer on the hallowed ground of Centre Court, Rafael Nadal works out on Court 7 under a sweltering July sun. It’s been 11 years since a 22-year-old Nadal and Federer, then 26, clashed in an epic final for the Wimbledon crown. This year, they’ll meet for a place in the final of The Championship.
Nadal seems to be enjoying himself throughout the rigorous one hour, 40-minute practice session. Following Nadal’s final preparations, his coach, Francisco Roig, steps off the court to discuss his charge’s semi-final match against Federer and the possibility of playing for the title at Wimbledon.
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Nadal feels great following his quarter-final win
Rafa managed to get off to an impressive start once again, imposing his will on Sam [Querrey] and building steam throughout the match. Sam was only able to earn points with his big serve. Things got a little shaky in that first set, when Rafa’s forehand seemed to let him down for a moment. He seemed on the verge of breaking Sam’s serve again and taking the set, but the break didn’t materialise the second time around. These things happen on grass. When that does occur, it’s dangerous because one misstep and the momentum can shift quickly.
The exact situation we were prepared to avoid unfolded: Sam raised his game and just like that, he was back in the match. Luckily, Rafa knows how to manage those situations and he regained control.
"I'm not necessarily a better player; I’ve gained some things, but I’ve also lost some things. " - Nadal
It’s a statement I’ve been hearing a lot recently and I stand by Rafa’s sentiments. I’ve said it before: Rafa is doing things now he couldn’t do before, but he’s also lost a few things. On a physical level, obviously he’s not the same person at 33 years of age that he was at 22. When you’re younger, you tend to play more carefree and without hesitation. When you are older, you’re more responsible on the court and play with less impulse. You’re more wary because you’ve been through critical moments and you know the possible outcomes... Is Rafa better today than he was in 2008? I don’t know, I can’t say who would win if they met. But today he’s capable of doing a lot more on the court.
A few months ago, it was hard to imagine Nadal would be battling for a place in the Wimbledon final
In Monte-Carlo and Barcelona, we were at a low point. Rafa was coming off an injury at Indian Wells and was sidelined for a while. He had lost the spark that sets him apart from the rest. We were a little demoralised. After he lost to [Dominic] Thiem [at Barcelona], Rafa came to the locker room and told us not to worry. He explained how he felt he had performed well; the difference between winning and losing was a couple of games and had he been able to take advantage of a few opportunities, the outcome would have been different. He assured us he hadn’t lost the spark. He played better in Madrid and even though he didn’t win, he understood some things were out of his control.
We saw the real Rafa in Rome, when he defeated [Novak] Djokovic in the final. That was a pivotal point and paved the way for success at Roland Garros. Since then, he’s been on a roll. He’s already exceeded expectations for the year. Winning a Grand Slam mean a lot to Rafa. No year goes down as a failure when Rafa wins at a major. It gives him so much peace of mind. When he arrived at Wimbledon this year, after having played well the last two years, he was already feeling confident. That confidence built after getting through a tough first week.
What’s at stake for Nadal and Federer
The two go into this match knowing what they’ve accomplished so far is enormous. But everything to this point won’t matter when they step on to the court. Nerves will be a factor; even if they’ve been through this so many times, there’s so much on the line. Experience, though, will be even more key. They’re both playing so well; whoever can keep their composure during tense moments will have the advantage.
What will determine the outcome of the match
The serve is a crucial factor on grass. Everything needs to be working at the highest level, of course, but it’s the serve that’s most critical. All the other factors come next. Taking advantage of opportunities is also very important. Getting out ahead and not falling behind on your serve is also imperative. To put it simply: Rafa can’t afford any lapses in concentration and he can’t risk falling behind at any stage of the match. When Federer gets ahead, he’s tough to catch. Rafa has to dictate the match on his terms. With all his weapons finely tuned, he should be able to control the points and the flow of the match.
Simply attacking the backhand isn’t a sound strategy on grass. Roger’s backhand is fluid; he’s in a groove and shows no signs of vulnerability on that side. At Roland Garros, we found his forehand to be the stronger of his two groundstrokes, with the wind making it difficult for him to control his backhand. We must keep Roger constantly under pressure and not allow him to drive forward and approach the net. There are no secrets; they know each other very well. It’s a very even match.
Each player has an equal shot at winning
Federer is the stronger player on grass, but Rafa has also proven his worth. He managed his way past pitfalls against [Nick] Kyrgios and Sam [Querrey], two very dangerous opponents on this surface. Rafa paid his dues in those encounters. I give each a 50-50 shot at winning.
I’ve kept a close eye on Roger throughout the tournament, knowing this day might come. We focused Rafa’s entire practice [today] on how to execute our plans and how to continue doing what has gotten him here. I always watch videos and try to glean as much information as possible to figure out the best approach going into a match. Sometimes it’s the little things you pick up that make a big difference when the match plays out. Even if they’re very familiar with each other’s games, there are always things you can learn that maybe you didn’t notice the last time you watched video or you didn’t pick up on the last time you watched them play. Convincing Rafa he’s entering the match with as much knowledge as possible goes a long way.
Talking strategy before matches of this magnitude
We speak and, of course, we debate. Rafa shares his opinion and the team provides feedback. We didn’t make many adjustments this time around, because everything is working for Rafa so far. He’s bullied his opponents, made them move, used all corners of the court, and that will be a big plus against Roger. We do our best to gauge where Rafa is at the moment and take factors, even as basic as Rafa being left-handed, into account.... Communicating openly with Rafa is important, and what we want is to have a discussion now, as this will be the last thing we leave him with before he steps into battle.