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Wimbledon's Tall Men Semifinal Might Be Dull, But Don't Miss A Novak-Rafa Classic

Illustration for article titled Wimbledons Tall Men Semifinal Might Be Dull, But Dont Miss A Novak-Rafa Classic
Photo: Clive Brunskill (Getty)

Back by popular demand, Various Tall Men have thrived once again at the Wimbledon Championships: Kevin Anderson and John Isner will face off in a men’s semifinal. The universe is stupid and cruel, so it is not possible to rule out the outcome that Isner will win that match, then serve 120-something aces to win Sunday’s, accepting his first major title while Trump nods off approvingly in the crowd.

“Certainly,” said Isner when asked if he’d be honored by the presence of the diaper-clad tennis enthusiast, who will be in the country Friday, attend his semifinal match. “I’d love to have Trump come watch me. That would be awesome. Maybe I’ll tweet at him if I win on Wednesday. I know a lot of people won’t like that, but I don’t care.” Edgy stuff. He doesn’t give a heck.

But maybe, mercifully, Anderson could advance. Somehow he ended up the decisive roadblock in Roger Federer’s smooth Rafa-free, Novak-free, Delpo-free path to the final. Federer faced just one seeded player en route to this quarterfinal, and no one had won a set or broken his serve or even pushed him to a tiebreak across those four matches. By now his early Wimbledon dissections just blend into one another. Whether it’s a 6-4 set or 6-1 or (gasp) the occasional 7-5, they are all just footsteps in his familiar procession through the fortnight. When the Swiss racked up a 2-0 lead over the 6-foot-8 South African, he seemed poised for yet another simple step. Anderson, after all, is the type of veteran that Federer has feasted on for years. A player with a nice serve and groundstrokes more solid than you might expect (a personal favorite among all the giants), and even a recent U.S. Open finalist, but still a man who had never won a set against the Swiss across four matches, and who, at age 32, seemed unlikely to unlock any new tricks that’d let him solve the sport’s second-hardest puzzle—Federer on grass—while in a two-set hole. He faced a match point in the third.


But he didn’t lose that point, and he won the whole match, 2-6, 6-7(5), 7-5, 6-4, 13-11, not all of it pretty. Watch the below video and try to figure out what looks so weird. It’s that Federer looked like he was actually trying. His forehand is tight, almost unrecognizable, as if he’s muscling the ball over the net. Apparent effortlessness has been his whole game and even brand identity; a second’s glance at that match could tell you that something had gone haywire.

Roger vs. Rafa in the Wimbledon final exactly 10 years later their greatest match would’ve been the best possible fan service, but the consolation prize isn’t so bad either: Novak Djokovic versus Rafael Nadal in the other semifinal. After some false starts, the Serb now appears convincingly recovered from his enigmatic spiritual slump and later elbow woes, and he’s playing as confidently as a three-time Wimbledon winner should. In a tricky quarterfinal he dispatched Kei Nishikori, his frequent dance partner of late, for the third time in 2018, and in all the moments Djokovic was not playing tennis he was healthily kvetching at the ump. After one point he screwed up his face and held up a tennis ball to mime pegging Carlos Ramos after the ump had issued a delay of game warning; at another, he howled “Double standards, my friend!” when Nishikori’s racket-chucking did not prompt the same warning that Novak’s previously had. He’s playing mad, letting his victim complex swell up, and winning, and though it’s a frankly annoying spectacle at times, on the whole, men’s tennis is infinitely more interesting when Novak Djokovic is good. It is no coincidence that his downswing synced up with the monolithic dominance of Federer and Nadal over the last six straight majors.

Djokovic’s limits will be tested by the latter man, who is playing with renewed confidence himself as far as is concerned. Nadal had not made a quarterfinal at Wimbledon since he lost to Djokovic in the 2011 final, which, given his all-around excellence in that same span, is a surprising statistic. For reference, the Spaniard has made 14 other quarterfinals since Wimbledon 2011, and won seven majors. Yesterday he left Juan Martin del Potro in a literal heap after their four-hour, 48-minute quarterfinal odyssey, and advanced:

Rediscovering old success on this surface, the two-time champion Nadal will turn his attention to an even more familiar foe. For all the rightful fuss over Federer and Nadal, one of the best rivalries in sports, Djokovic and Nadal’s careers (and peaks) have aligned even more neatly. They have had confronted one another an outrageous number of times, with eerily even results. This semifinal will be their 52nd career meeting, and Djokovic maintains the slimmest advantage: 26-25. Whether or not that edge survives by the end of tomorrow will be the single most intriguing question of the men’s tournament, final be damned.

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