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Opinion: Latest Federer-Nadal match will have a huge impact on each player's legacy

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The most celebrated match ever played at Wimbledon finished at dusk with Rafael Nadal flat on his back and Roger Federer’s long run as the undisputed best tennis player in the world suddenly over. 

It was 11 years ago. 

At that moment of Nadal’s first Wimbledon title, ending Federer’s streak of five straight, it would have been far too fanciful to imagine the possibility of their rivalry extending into 2019. Tennis players are supposed to get old in their 30s, and new generations are supposed to take their place. That’s the way it had always been. The thought of another Nadal-Federer match with such historic consequences taking place at Wimbledon more than a decade in the future had no precedent to think it could become a reality. 

But Friday’s semifinal meeting, the first at Wimbledon since Nadal outlasted Federer after a 4-hour, 48-minute final in 2008, feels unusually significant in the ongoing debate over who will end their career as the greatest of all time.

Though there’s more to the conversation than just total Grand Slams, here’s where we stand today: Federer 20, Nadal 18 and Novak Djokovic looming with 15.

Though Federer has some significant records that the other two probably won’t touch, it will be difficult for him to maintain his consensus as the GOAT if he ultimately slips to third in the Slam count. And though he maintains excellent form on every surface at 37, it’s undeniable that Wimbledon’s grass affords Federer the best chance to add to his total. 

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If Federer can somehow get past Nadal and then Djokovic in the final – he’s never before beaten both of them to win a Grand Slam – the math starts working significantly in his favor given Nadal’s age (33) and the fact that his creaky knees haven’t held up well on the hard courts of late. But if Nadal gets his 19th here at Federer’s favorite major, well, all bets are off. 

In some ways, it would have been less risky from a legacy standpoint for Federer to call it a career at the end of 2017. After taking the last half of 2016 off to heal his injuries, Federer roared back unexpectedly to collect two more majors — including an Australian Open final in which he came back from a break down in the fifth set to stun Nadal.

By the end of that year, he had beaten Nadal four straight times, all on hard courts, closing the head-to-head gap to 23-15 in Nadal’s favor. It would have been a strong closing argument from Federer, particularly given the reality that 16 of their 39 meetings have been on clay, helping tilt the rivalry in Nadal’s direction. On other surfaces, Federer leads the head-to-head 13-10. 

But by continuing to play and advance deep into these tournaments where he is likely to face Djokovic or Nadal, Federer has put some of that at risk.

When Nadal beat him handily in the French Open semifinals last month, Federer could once again point to the clay factor plus extreme wind that blew the ball all over the court. Nadal’s game, built on heavy spins and high bounces, is always problematic for Federer on clay but was impenetrable that day in those conditions. 

At Wimbledon, though, it’s a different story. On grass the ball stays lower, giving Federer the edge because of his exquisite serve placement, his slice backhand and his ability to power flat forehands for winners in either direction from the middle of the court. 

But what’s so amazing about the Nadal-Federer rivalry is how both of them have evolved since 2008. 

For years, Nadal was able to beat Federer with a steady diet of high-spinning lefty forehands to Federer’s one-handed backhand, an awkward shot that put him on the defensive in most of their meetings. That forced Federer to develop a totally new type of stroke, coming over the top of his backhand more often in a way that allowed him to really drive the ball and turn defense into offense — a crucial factor in their 2017 meetings. 

Nadal has also changed his game to counteract both Federer and chronic knee issues, adding miles per hour to his serve and hitting some flatter balls on the faster surfaces to shorten points. 

It seems crazy to say given their ages, but it’s true: Both Federer and Nadal are better, more complete players today than they were in 2008. 

That doesn’t mean we’re guaranteed to get a great match, or even a good one, in the semifinals. And it doesn’t mean that the winner is going to end up holding a trophy on Sunday given that Djokovic has an easier semifinal draw against Roberto Bautista Agut and has won three of the past four Slams.

But as lucky as we are to get one more Federer-Nadal match at Wimbledon for the ceremony and the nostalgia, it’s also crucial to understand that this one might have huge legacy implications. As much as 2008 validated Nadal as a world-class player on all surfaces and launched his bid to eventually become No. 1, 2019 could be the match that either solidifies Federer’s gap in the GOAT conversation or nearly erases it. 

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  • July 11: Entrepreneur Richard Branson and his daughter, Holly Branson, attend the Elina Svitolina-Simona Halep semifinal.1 of 56
  • Former football player David Beckham and his mother Sandra Georgina West attend the Royal Box during Day Ten of The Championships - Wimbledon 2019 at All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 11, 2019 in London, England.2 of 56
  • Former British Prime Minister John Major takes his seat in the Royal Box above Centre Court for the semifinal match between Elina Svitolina and Simona Halep.3 of 56
  • British actress Claire Foy (R) watches Ukraine's Elina Svitolina playing Romania's Simona Halep during their women's singles semi-final match on day ten of the 2019 Wimbledon Championships at The All England Lawn Tennis Club in Wimbledon, southwest London, on July 11, 2019.4 of 56
  • July 10: The Duchess of Cornwall, Camilla Parker-Bowles, in attendance for the Novak Djokovic-David Goffin match.5 of 56
  • July 10: Dame Twiggy Lawson, former model,  in attendance at the All England Lawn and Croquet Club.6 of 56
  • July 10: Prince Albert II of Monaco and former tennis player Manuel Santana of Spain in attendance for the Novak Djokovic-David Goffin match.7 of 56
  • July 10: Singer Shirley Bassey attends the Royal Box at Centre Court.8 of 56
  • July 9: Golfer Jack Nicklaus looks on from the Royal Box during Day 8 Wimbledon.9 of 56
  • July 9: Cliff Richard smiles before taking his seat in the Royal Box on Centre Court.10 of 56
  • July 9: British former track and field athlete Denise Lewis sits in the Royal Box on Centre Court to watch Serena Williams play against Alison Riske.11 of 56
  • July 9: Actors Richard E. Grant, left, and Matthew Goode applaud while sitting in the Royal Box at Centre Court.12 of 56
  • July 9: Former Olympic champion runner Dame Kelly Holmes sits in the Royal Box.13 of 56
  • July 9: Actress Ruth Wilson sits in the Royal Box.14 of 56
  • July 9: England women's soccer team coach Phil Neville sits next to player Karen Carney, left, in the Royal Box.15 of 56
  • July 8: James Middleton and Pippa Middleton in attendance for the Rafael Nadal-Joao Sousa match.16 of 56
  • July 8: Pro Golfer Justin Rose in attendance for the Rafael Nadal-Joao Sousa match.17 of 56
  • Jul 7, 2019; London, United Kingdom;  Anna Wintour in attendance for the Rafael Nadal (ESP) and Joao Sousa (POR) match on day seven at the All England Lawn and Croquet Club. Mandatory Credit: Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports ORG XMIT: USATSI-402169 ORIG FILE ID:  20190708_jel_au2_041.jpg18 of 56
  • July 8: Spanish golfer Sergio Garcia and his wife Angela Akins watch Spain's Rafael Nadal playing Portugal's Joao Sousa.19 of 56
  • July 8: English golfer Tommy Fleetwood (smiling) watches Spain's Rafael Nadal playing Portugal's Joao Sousa.20 of 56
  • July 8:  TV personality Anthony McPartlin and girlfriend Anne-Marie Corbett attend the Royal Box.21 of 56
  • July 8: English golfer Danny Willett watches Spain's Rafael Nadal playing Portugal's Joao Sousa.22 of 56
  • July 6: Kim Sears, wife of Britain's Andy Murray, smiles as she sits in the crowd to watch Murray and his partner France's Pierre-Hugues Herbert play against Croatia's Nikola Mektic and Croatia's Franko Skugor during their men's doubles match.23 of 56
  • July 6: British singer-songwriter Mollie King is seen in the Royal Box.24 of 56
  • July 6: Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova in attendance in the Royal Box.25 of 56
  • July 6:  Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow at Centre Court.26 of 56
  • July 6: Lord Sebastian Coe is seen in the Royal Box on Centre Court.27 of 56
  • July 6: Olympic gold medalist Sir Mohamed Farah in attendance in the Royal Box.28 of 56
  • July 6: Rod Laver poses in the Royal Box with the trophy relics he received from the AELTC 50 years after he won his last Wimbledon.29 of 56
  • July 5: Pop star and Spice Girl Geri Horner smiles after taking her seat in the Royal Box on Centre Court during Day 5 at Wimbledon.30 of 56
  • July 5: Actress, Phoebe Waller-Bridge attends Day 5 at Wimbledon.31 of 56
  • July 4: Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, left, smiles as she takes her seat on Centre Court to watch Serena Williams play Slovenia's Kaja Juvan.32 of 56
  • July 4: Actor James D'Arcy smiles as he takes his seat in the Royal Box on Centre Court.33 of 56
  • July 4: Madison Isner in attendance for the John Isner-Mikhail Kukushkin match on Day 4.34 of 56
  • July 4: Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, in attendance for the Kaja Juvan-Serena Williams match.35 of 56
  • Former chancellor of the exchequer and editor of the London Evening Standard newspaper, George Osborne (R), watches from the royal box on centre court as Britain's Cameron Norrie plays against Japan's Kei Nishikori during their men's singles second round match on the fourth day of the 2019 Wimbledon Championships at The All England Lawn Tennis Club in Wimbledon, southwest London, on July 4, 2019. (Photo by Adrian DENNIS / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USEADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images ORIG FILE ID: AFP_1IB8F136 of 56
  • July 4: Jiri Vanek, Petra Kvitova's coach. watches her second-round match against Kristina Mladenovic of France.37 of 56
  • July 4: Tony Henman, father of Tim Henman, watches on during Day 4 at Wimbledon.38 of 56
  • July 3: TV Television presenters Tess Daly and Vernon Kay attend Day 3 at Wimbledon.39 of 56
  • British celebrity chef Mary Berry, center, sits in the Royal Box on Center Court during day three of the Wimbledon Tennis Championships in London, Wednesday, July 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Tim Ireland) ORG XMIT: TH16340 of 56
  • July 3: British racing driver David Coulthard in the Royal Box on Centre Court.41 of 56
  • July 3:  Carole Middleton and Michael Middleton, parents of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge attend Day 3 Wimbledon.42 of 56
  • July 3: French tennis player Gael Monfils watches his girlfriend Elina Svitolina of Ukraine in action against Margarita Gasparyan of Russia.43 of 56
  • July 2: Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, gestures at Centre Court as she watches Germany's Tatjana Maria playing against Germany's Angelique Kerber.44 of 56
  • July 2: Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge at Centre Court on Day 2 at Wimbledon.45 of 56
  • July 2: Roger Federer's son reacts as he watches from the crowd in first-round match between his father and Lloyd Harris of South Africa.46 of 56
  • July 2: Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and British tennis player Katie Boulter attend Day 2 at Wimbledon.47 of 56
  • July 2: Mirka Federer watches husband Roger Federer of Switzerland play Lloyd Harris of South Africa in their first-round match.48 of 56
  • July 2:  Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge (center) on the grounds at the All England Lawn Tennis Club.49 of 56
  • July 2: Alexis Ohanian watches his wife Serena Williams play Giulia Gatto-Monticone of Italy.50 of 56
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  • July 2: Garry Kissick (center), a professional golfer and boyfriend to Ashleigh Barty, in attendance for the match against Saisai Zheng.52 of 56
  • July 1: Former F1 world champion Sir Jackie Stewart and Victoria Stewart take their seats on Centre court during Day 1 at Wimbledon.53 of 56
  • July 1: Actors Emily Mortimer and her husband Alessandro Nivola take their seats on Centre court during Day 1 at Wimbledon.54 of 56
  • July 1: Prince Frederik (left) of Denmark in the Royal Box on Centre Court on the first day of Wimbledon.55 of 56
  • July 1: Coach Goran Ivanisevic (center) watches Novak Djokovic of Serbia play Philipp Kohlschreiber of Germany in their first-round match at Wimbledon.56 of 56

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