WIMBLEDON, England – After waiting 11 years to get another shot against Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon, Roger Federer wasted four match points before Nadal pushed a backhand long on match point No. 5, bringing an anticlimactic close to the otherwise classic semifinal Friday that Federer won 7-6 (3), 1-6, 6-3, 6-4.
"I'm exhausted. It was tough at the end," Federer said. "I'm just very relieved it's all over."
Federer closed in on a ninth championship at the All England Club and 21st Grand Slam trophy in all. To get to those numbers in Sunday's final, Federer must get past Novak Djokovic, the defending champion and No. 1 seed.
"We all know how good he is anywhere," Djokovic said about Federer, "but especially here."
Djokovic reached his sixth final at the grass-court major by beating 23rd-seeded Roberto Bautista Agut 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 earlier Friday. Djokovic is eyeing a fifth Wimbledon and 16th major title.
One key in Federer's victory was that his rebuilt backhand held steady against Nadal's bullwhip of a lefty forehand. Another was that Federer was able to withstand Nadal's serve. Federer amassed 10 break points, and though he succeeded on just two, that was enough. And Federer won 25 of the 33 points when he went to the net.
"I didn't play well enough," said Nadal, who lost a five-set semifinal to Djokovic a year ago at Wimbledon.
There was something of an "Anything you can do, I can do, too" vibe to Friday's proceedings. Federer would kick up chalk with an ace to a corner, and Nadal would do the same in the next game. When Nadal jumped out to a 3-2 lead in the first-set tiebreaker, Federer used sublime returns to reel off five points in a row to claim it.
"Probably the biggest points in the match went my way. There were some tight ones and long rallies," Federer said. "He plays with such velocity and spins and everything, you're not always sure you're going to connect the right way."
Nadal entered Friday with a 24-15 overall lead head-to-head, including 10-3 at Grand Slams.
This was the second major in a row they've met: Nadal won their French Open semifinal last month en route to his 12th championship on the red clay. But Wimbledon is Federer's dominion: He's won 101 matches there — more than any other man at any other Slam.
Djokovic, meanwhile, leads his series with Federer 25-22, including 9-6 in Grand Slam matches.
"I hope I can push him to the brink and hopefully beat him. But it's going to be very difficult, as we know," Federer said. "He's not No. 1 just by chance."