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

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 7/11/2019 Dan Wolken

Rafael Nadal holding a racket on a court © Provided by USA Today Sports Media Group LLC 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 hours, 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 that 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. 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Opinion: Latest Federer-Nadal match will have a huge impact on each player's legacy

Related slideshow: Best of 2019 Wimbledon (Provided by imagn)

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