Eight-times champion Roger Federer will play top-seeded titleholder Novak Djokovic in the men’s Wimbledon final after upstaging Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals.
Federer exacted sweet revenge over Nadal to sweep into a record 12th Wimbledon final with an enthralling four-set triumph over the mighty Spaniard.
Earlier top seed and defending champion Djokovic held off a spirited challenge from Spanish outsider Roberto Bautista Agut to triumph in four sets and advance to Sunday’s match.
The 6-2 4-6 6-3 6-2 success was the Serb’s 12th victory in the last 13 grand slam semi-finals and he will be seeking his fifth title at Wimbledon and 16th grand slam singles crown in the latest instalment of the ‘big three’ showdown.
Echoes of 2008 reverberated around the All England Club as Federer and Nadal wound back the clock in their much-anticipated first Wimbledon match-up in 11 years.
But unlike Nadal’s five-set victory in that epic encounter more than a decade ago, a match dubbed the greatest of all time, Federer reigned 7-6 (7-3) 1-6 6-3 6-3 in another classic on Friday.
“I’m very excited to say the least,” Federer said.
Less than a month shy of his 38th birthday, Federer is the second-oldest man to reach a Wimbledon final, after 39-year-old Ken Rosewall in 1974, denying Nadal for the first time in five grand slam semi-finals between the two great rivals.
Federer and Djokovic, who beat Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut 6-2 4-6 6-3 6-2 in Friday’s first semi, will be clashing in the final for the third time on London’s hallowed grass after the Serb prevailed in two riveting title deciders in 2014 and 2015.
Looking to match Bjorn Borg’s tally of five Wimbledon crowns, Djokovic leads Federer 3-1 in grand slam finales, having also conquered the champion Swiss in the 2015 US Open showpiece.
Federer hasn’t beaten Djokovic in a major final since 2007 in New York, but will carry renewed confidence into Sunday’s showdown after upstaging Nadal for only the fourth time in 14 grand slam encounters.
Chasing a ninth title at the All England Club and a 21st career major overall, Federer pressed hard for the first service break against Nadal.
He upped his tennis to insane levels deep in the opening set but so supreme was Nadal too that the eight-time champion had to pull out all the stops to twice fight back from mini break points down to steal the set in a tiebreaker.
Unable to sustain such extraordinary hitting, Federer had a mental dip in the second set, dropping serve to love in the fourth game with three sloppy unforced errors.
Down 3-1, Federer all but surrendered the set with half-hearted returns as Nadal levelled the semi up.
But he hit back swiftly in the third set, breaking Nadal for the first time after winning the point of the match with a breathtaking backhand volley in the fourth game.
Continuing his relentless attacking onslaught, Federer forced Nadal into errors to break the Spaniard again in the fourth game of the fourth set to take a stranglehold on proceedings.
Federer ruefully blundered a chance to gain a match point on Nadal’s serve at 3-5 when he unsuccessfully challenged a line call having hit a clean winner.
But the second seed held his nerve – and serve – amid unbearable tension in the next game to complete a memorable victory with a forehand winner on his fifth match point after three hours and two minutes.
“I’m exhausted. It was tough at the end. Rafa played some unbelievable shots to stay in the match,” Federer said.
“It just thought it was a joy to play today.”
Federer will be contesting an unprecedented 31st men’s grand slam singles final with top seed Djokovic his 25th.
Earlier Djokovic won the first set relatively comfortably but was pegged back in the second as 23rd-seed Bautista Agut, appearing in his first grand slam semi and buoyed by winning the pair’s last two meetings, upped his serving and took advantage of some uncharacteristic errors from the hot favourite.
The match turned on an amazing 45-shot rally in the sixth game of the third set, which Djokovic won to break serve – and from then on he took total control as the Spaniard, who had looked calm and confident in his first Grand Slam semi-final was eventually brushed aside.
“I had to dig deep. It’s the semi-finals and Roberto was not overwhelmed,” Djokovic, 32, said.
“He played really well. He was managing his nerves in the first set but later on he established himself and started to play better. I got a bit tight.
It was a close opening four or five games of the third set – that’s where the match could have gone a different way.”
Bautista Agut flashed a brilliant return past Djokovic from the first serve of the match but he barely threatened for the rest of the set as his high-risk approach produced too many errors and a provided a straightforward set win for the favourite.
The second was a different story as Bautista Agut dialled back a little and found that he was able to out-duel the master. Djokovic was making uncharacteristic errors on seemingly simple shots and was frequently left staring skywards, questioning himself.
Bautista Agut snatched a break in the third game and served superbly to back it up, dropping only four points in five successful service games to level the match.
The third third set and probably the match, hinged on its seventh game as Djokovic, a break to the good, served at 30-40.
The players then smashed out their remarkable 45-shot rally, much of it a mesmerising exchange of identical crosscourt backhands that had the crowd gasping before Djokovic blinked first to switch the angle of attack and take the point with a devastating winner.
It was the longest rally officially seen at Wimbledon since records began in 2005 and Djokovic duly served out and stayed on top to take the set.
The champion then took command in the fourth set, cutting out the loose groundstrokes and picking up points with adventurous serve-and-volley attacks, and after breaking for a 2-1 lead he never looked back.
Bautista Agut can now at least join his friends on a belated stag break having had to postpone his plans to jet off to Ibiza after his unexpected progress to the last four in London.
Djokovic, however, has got more business to attend to.
“Regardless of the history and many finals I’ve played, playing a final at Wimbledon is something different so I’ll definitely enjoy that experience,” he said.