by Liz Clarke in Wimbledon, England

The business at hand, when thousands of tennis fans jammed onto the All England Club’s grounds and global stars of sport and screen alighted in the Royal Box, was determining the finalists for Sunday’s Wimbledon championship.

But the subtext of every dazzling stroke, when Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal reprised their 2008 Wimbledon final in Friday’s semifinals, was who will go down as the greatest tennis player of all time.

At 37 and 33, Federer and Nadal are nearing the end of their brilliant careers. And they have never been bunched closer together in the measure of greatness that matters most: Grand Slam titles. Federer has a men’s record 20 majors and Nadal 18.

And world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who had clinched his spot in Sunday’s championship earlier in the day, has inserted himself into the race for greater-player status by winning three of the past four majors to bring his tally to 15.

So when Federer turned back time Friday, four weeks shy of his 38th birthday, to defeat Nadal, his career-defining rival, 7-6 (7-3), 1-6, 6-3, 6-4, the stakes and significance were profound. With it, the third-ranked Swiss moved within one victory of a ninth Wimbledon championship and a 21st major that would put his legacy further out of reach.

Federer raised both arms in triumph upon vanquishing Nadal, who fended off four match points before succumbing on the threadbare grass of Centre Court, where the two contested three consecutive Wimbledon finals from 2006 to 2008.

They were 26 and 22 when they weathered rain delays and encroaching darkness in what many believe was the greatest match in tennis history: Wimbledon’s 2008 final, which Nadal won, 9-7 in the fifth set, in a triumph of physical toughness, tactical reinvention and heart.

Friday’s semifinal was the 40th time Federer and Nadal have met, but it was first time they had met at Wimbledon since 2008.

The true marvel, 11 years later, isn’t that they have maintained their fitness and ranking among the world’s top three players. The marvel is that they have improved — sharpened their serves, altered tactics, added shots and, perhaps most stunning of all, maintained their hunger and drive after amassing more than $100 million each in career winnings.

For roughly 15 years, Federer and Nadal have been pushed by something more powerful than money, trophies or fame. They have been pushed by one another and, of late, Djokovic, who will stand in Federer’s way Sunday.

Tennis probably won’t see a trio of contemporaneous champions again.

Nadal said after Friday’s defeat that he was proud to be part of it.

“We know that every time [there] is less chances to play against each other in this high quality, high important matches,” Nadal said. “Today is sad for me. I know chances are not forever.”

Nadal could barely contain himself when he and Federer stepped onto Centre Court to a standing ovation at 4:30 p.m. He bounced like a boxer during the coin toss while Federer projected serenity.

What followed was a battle of excellence vs. excellence. With neither able to assert an upper hand early, the opening set was settled by a tiebreak. Federer took it, 7-3.

If anything, the early setback stoked Nadal, who ramped up the pressure on Federer’s serve and leveled the match by claiming a 37-minute second set.

At that stage, it wasn’t clear whether Federer was conserving energy or feeling fatigue.

It was the former, as quickly became clear. Federer conjured magic in the third set, winning a battle of wits and reflexes at the net to break Nadal early, then fending off a clutch of break points to maintain his advantage.

Federer seemed to have an answer for every situation, whether well-placed lobs, irretrievable overheads or unreturnable serves. He also won most of the long rallies — the 20- and 25-shot ordeals that are typically Nadal’s strong suit.

Nadal explained afterward that he never felt confident in his backhand, which had a way of undermining how aggressively he hit his forehand. He also didn’t return serve as well as he had earlier in the tournament. But the difference — Nadal made clear — was that Federer was the better player.

“He is always able to do the most difficult things easy,” Nadal said, beautifully summing up the defining quality of Federer’s genius.

Federer, for his part, credited a good, aggressive game plan that had him fielding Nadal’s heavy blasts from inside the baseline, taking the ball on the rise and seizing openings to come to net.

By the time Federer served for the third set, just past the two-hour mark, shade had crept across all but a small corner of the court. He held with ease, presenting Nadal with a must-win fourth set.

Though Nadal battled on, he never reclaimed the momentum. Federer remained in control, almost maddeningly serene, as Nadal summoned his bravest shots to deny match point four times. But the resurgence came too late.

“There were some brutal rallies in key moments that went my way,” Federer said. “I think those might have made the difference.”

Djokovic’s semifinal against Roberto Bautista Agut, which opened the proceedings on Centre Court, felt like an undercard compared with the highly anticipated Federer-Nadal clash.

But Bautista Agut nearly proved a disrupter in his first Grand Slam semifinal, forcing Djokovic to produce his best tennis of the tournament to pull out the 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory.

Seeded 23rd, Bautista Agut was as surprised by his march to Wimbledon’s semifinal as anyone, having scheduled his bachelor party in Ibiza for the tournament’s final weekend. The party was postponed, and his buddies flew to England to join his fiancee in cheering him on.

Djokovic, Wimbledon’s four-time and defending champion, had faced only one seeded player (David Goffin) in breezing to Wimbledon’s semifinals after early-round upsets bounced four top-10 players from his half of the draw.

Djokovic claimed the opening set in just 36 minutes, looking virtually untouchable.

But with Djokovic’s forehand and focus straying, Bautista Agut took the second set to level the match. With the Spaniard making it a match, Djokovic flapped his arms at the capacity crowd to coax a show of support.

He found his own motivation in the third set and rolled to the victory, clearing the stage for the 40th edition of Federer vs. Nadal.

Match highlights

by Ava Wallace in Washington

Final: Federer wins, will face Djokovic for title

The eight-time Wimbledon champion beat the two-time winner in a rematch of the 2008 final, won by Nadal and considered one of the greatest matches in tennis history. Federer bounced back Friday from an uncharacteristically poor second set to win, 7-6 (7-3), 1-6, 6-3, 6-4.

Federer could extend his record for men’s titles with a win Sunday over top-ranked Novak Djokovic, the defending champion, and a four-time winner at Wimbledon. Djokovic advanced to the final earlier Friday with a 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 win over Roberto Bautista Agut.

Fourth set: Federer breaks again, leads 2-1

Federer’s on a bit of a roll now, capitalizing on a shaky service game from Nadal to take an early lead in the fourth. His sharpness now makes that second set seem even weirder in retrospect.

Third set: Federer wins 6-3, takes 2-1 lead

Federer flipped out of the potential wreck of the second set to a fairly dominant third set against Nadal. He’s never lost with a two-sets-to-one lead against Nadal, who engaged Federer in lengthy rallies throughout the set. But Federer weathered them gracefully; more often than not, they ended with Nadal frustrated after sending his groundstrokes out of bounds.

In the third set, Federer hit 15 winners, had just two unforced errors and won 14 of the 17 rallies that lasted longer than five shots.

Third set: Federer takes a 3-1 lead

Federer’s turn to break. My goodness, this guy moves well for a 37-year-old. Federer shook off that horrible second set without much trouble, it seems, and took the inch of space that Nadal afforded him. He’s moving fabulously and clearly still confident at net.

Second set: Nadal wins 6-1 to even the match

Federer appeared to have lost the plot in the second set. Shanks, mishits and errant lobs are not what the past Wimbledon champion is known for. Nadal made no mistakes in taking advantage to even the match, but that was mainly a Federer meltdown. According to the ESPN broadcast, it was the first time Federer has ever lost a set 6-1 at Wimbledon.

Second set: Nadal takes a 4-1 lead

A fault, two lets and a backhand into the net on break point from Federer gave Nadal the first break of serve in this match in the fourth game. He then consolidated with a wicked serve down the T and forced Federer into a wild lob — the Swiss’s serve has dropped just a touch and Nadal took advantage.

First set: Federer wins, 7-6 (7-3)

Whew. That was tense. Federer was slightly more aggressive in the pair’s first tiebreak since they played one in an Australian Open semifinal in 2014 (Nadal won that one, and the match), and it was just enough to nab him the first set. The Swiss champion challenged Nadal with his returns, and for Federer’s sake, it’s a good thing he did. He’s a somewhat surprising 2-18 against Nadal when the Spaniard wins the first set.

First set: Federer and Nadal tied, 4-4

In a rather predictable start to the match, no one’s broken serve yet and the rivals are deadlocked midway through the first set. Things were zipping right along, with the first seven games taking just 20 minutes, but in the eighth game Federer took Nadal to deuce. The Spaniard closed it out anyway.

In lieu of any immediate craziness, let’s talk about who came out to Centre Court’s Royal Box to see Federer and Nadal’s first meeting at Wimbledon since 2008. Actors Hugh Grant, Jude Law and Damian Lewis have been spotted, as have TV personalities David Attenborough and Bear Grylls. Golfers Nick Faldo and Gary Player are there, as are David Beckham and the legendary soccer coach Sir Alex Ferguson. Quite the distinguished crowd.

Djokovic wins first semifinal

It took four sets and five match points and featured an unexpected amount of drama, but Novak Djokovic is through to his sixth Wimbledon final after defeating Roberto Bautista Agut in Friday’s first semifinal. Djokovic’s focus wavered more than usual and Bautista Agut tested him with long rallies and tireless defending from the baseline, but Djokovic prevailed for the chance to defend his 2018 title. The world’s top-ranked player is a four-time Wimbledon champion.

Semifinals preview

After nearly two weeks of low-key and uneventful tennis on the men’s side, Wimbledon finally spat out a matchup that promises drama to the highest degree. This is the rematch that tennis fans have waited 11 years for, in which, on Friday morning in the second semifinal of the day, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will meet for the first time at Wimbledon since their famed 2008 final. That’s when a 22-year-old Nadal defeated a 26-year-old Federer in a thrilling, five-set match widely considered one of the greatest ever played.

Excited yet?

Read Liz Clarke’s in-depth look at the Big Three’s path to the semifinals — No. 1 seed and defending champion Novak Djokovic takes on No. 23 seed Roberto Bautista Agut in the first match of the day — for a more detailed look at the histories of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic at Wimbledon and how they moved through the draw this year. But in the meantime, here are the nuts and bolts of both matchups.

Friday marks Federer and Nadal’s 40th meeting, the most recent of which came in an incredibly windy match, won 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 by Nadal, at the French Open just over a month ago. But Wimbledon is Federer’s turf. He’s won a record eight singles titles at the All England club and captured his 100th career singles match on Tuesday in a quarterfinal win over Kei Nishikori that took four sets.

Nadal arrived by taking down the American Sam Querrey, 7-5, 6-2, 6-2, and his second consecutive appearance in a Wimbledon semifinal is a bit of a landmark for the Spaniard. Grass hasn’t been his greatest surface — he won at Wimbledon in 2008 and 2010 then reached the final again in 2011, but didn’t get past the fourth round again until last year.

In fact, it’s the first time since 2007 that Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have all reached the Wimbledon semifinals. Djokovic swept Belgium’s David Goffin 6-4, 6-0, 6-2 to make it this far, and he’ll face a man who has beaten him twice already this year. Bautisa Agut, a 31-year-old ardent baseliner, topped Djokovic in Doha, Qatar in early January and again in Miami in March after Djokovic won the Australian Open. But most wouldn’t put much stock in those losses heading into this meeting. Djokovic is in top form and hasn’t dropped a set this fortnight.

For those interested, here’s the Grand Slam singles title tally: Federer has 20, Nadal has 18 and Djokovic has 15.

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