Roger Federer justified the All England Clubs decision to make him Wimbledon second seed as he put behind him a limp second set against Rafael Nadal to win 7-6 (3), 1-6, 6-3, 6-4

Two old friends played some tennis for a shade over three hours on a sunny Friday evening and everything felt right with the world. When it was over the crowd gave both their heroes standing ovations and prayed for an encore. Everyone agreed: this simply cannot be the last time Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal meet at Wimbledon.

Did it have to end? Unfortunately it did and, when it was over, the majestic Federer had reached the second Sunday for the 12th time, made up for his defeat by Nadal in their 2008 final and demonstrated precisely why the All England Club chose to make him the second seed at the expense of his oldest adversary.

It was an extraordinary performance from a man who turns 38 next month. The Swiss went for the lines with every shot and was rewarded with 51 winners. He hit single-handed backhands on the half-volley, served magnificently and returned Nadals snorting deliveries with interest. Most impressively, the greatest player of all time recovered from a comically bad second set to win in four and, if he produces this level again when he faces Novak Djokovic on Sunday, he will have a fine chance of collecting his ninth Wimbledon title and avenging defeats by the world No 1 in the 2014 and 2015 finals.

No doubt Centre Court will be transformed into the Temple of Roger again, with the Swiss masters opponent regarded as little more than light entertainment by a fawning audience. Mostly they just want Djokovic cast in the role of hapless magicians assistant a poor sap to be loaded into a cannon and fired into Wimbledon Village.

Rumour has it the royal box once bowed to Federer here. Yet the dynamic was different with Nadal on the prowl. This was the first meeting between these two champions at Wimbledon for 11 years and when they emerged it was clear Federer would not enjoy unanimous support.

The moments before their 40th bout were instructive, Nadal all hyperactive motion as he bounced by his chair, Federer serenely observing his garden. All fortnight Nadal has worn the look of a man daring someone to spill his pint. He arrived motivated after being demoted to No 3 seed and had dropped only one set in his five matches.

For Federer there was a sense that it needed to be a quick kill. The older man did not want to be drawn into a long tussle and he pressed hard in the first set, only for Nadal to lean on a trusted old tactic, peppering his opponents backhand with lefty forehand spin.

Back in the day that was how Nadal would dominate Federer. In 2017, however, the switch to a larger racket face gave Federers backhand greater potency and led to four straight wins against Nadal.

Yet Nadal has also become a more rounded player since 2008. He has a sharper backhand, a crafty net game, a firmer serve. Those tweaks have helped him regain his poise on grass. The opening set went to a tie-break. Federer had won four of his five shootouts against Nadal at Wimbledon and it was five from six after he rounded off five consecutive points with a forehand down the line.

Nadal refused to panic. Nadal does not do panic. After all he had thumped Federer on his way to moving two titles behind the 37-year-olds haul of 20 majors with victory at Roland Garros last month. For a while he overwhelmed Federer, who looked about as engaged as Bernard Tomic at the end of the second set.

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Nadal had become a grunting wall of fury. Yet Federers elegance means his fighting qualities are sometimes overlooked. Whereas most players would have wilted, he put those disastrous 20 minutes behind him and dominated the third set.

Admittedly this contest never matched the consistent excellence on show 11 years ago. The legs are a little slower, the hair is a little thinner and in Federers case the travelling party contains two sets of twins these days. Nadal was close to collapse during the fourth set. Worn out by Federers easy variety, he finished with 25 unforced errors.

All the same there was drama at the end, Nadal pumping his fists after saving four match points, Federer almost blowing it with a preposterous smash. Yet there would be no denying Federer his 16th win over the ultimate competitor and the only question now is whether he can deal with Djokovic.


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