Second-seeded Federer outlasted No. 3 Nadal 7-6 (3), 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 on Centre Court on Friday to reach his 12th final at the All England Club, where he will seek a record-extending ninth title against top-seeded Novak Djokovic on Sunday.
It was the first meeting at Wimbledon between the two longtime rivals since the 2008 final, when Nadal won an epic fifth set 9-7 as darkness descended -- considered by some to be the greatest match in the sport's lengthy annals.
This one felt like just as much of a classic contest, though, and one that anyone is not likely to forget.
"I'm exhausted," 38-year-old Federer said. "It was tough at the end."
The Swiss star failed to capitalize on two match points in the penultimate game. Then he had trouble closing out the match on serve as Nadal fought off two more match points -- one after a long rally; another on a sharp crosscourt shot -- before Federer finally was able to raise his hands in victory after a shot by Nadal went long.
"It had everything at the end, which was great, I guess," Federer said. "I'm just relieved it's all over at this point. But it's definitely, definitely going to go down as one of my favorite matches to look back at, again, because it's Rafa, it's at Wimbledon, the crowds were into it."
Said Nadal, who offered no excuses: "I had my chances. He played little bit better than me, I think. Probably I didn't play as good as I did in the previous rounds, and he played well. So he deserve it. Congrats to him."
The 20-time Grand Slam singles champion capitalized on his serve throughout the match against Nadal, finishing with 14 aces and landing 69% of his first serves.
"I was able to stick to my game plan, stay aggressive, stay offensive," Federer said. "I guess I also started to serve a bit better maybe after that second set.
"I think I won a lot of the important points in the third and fourth sets. There were some brutal rallies in key moments that went my way. I think those might have made the difference today."
Djokovic overcame Roberto Bautista Agut 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 earlier Friday to reach his sixth Wimbledon final.
As entertaining as that match was -- including a 45-stroke point won by Djokovic -- it was merely a tasty appetizer ahead of the day's delectable main course.
After being greeted to Centre Court by a standing ovation, both Federer and Nadal seemed to have an "anything you can do, I can do, too" vibe.
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 returning to reel off five points in a row to claim it.
One key for Federer, however, was that his rebuilt backhand, hit strong and flat more frequently than it used to be, held steady against Nadal's bullwhip of a lefty forehand. Another was that he was able to withstand Nadal's serve, which has improved a ton over the years.
Federer amassed 10 break points, and though he succeeded on just two, that was enough, with the last, vital conversion making it 2-1 in the fourth set. And then there was this: Federer won 25 of the 33 points when he went to the net.
"It's always very, very cool to play against Rafa here," Federer said. "... It lived up to the hype, especially from coming out of the gates, we were both playing very well. Then the climax at the end with the crazy last game, some tough rallies there."
No one else has managed to reduce Federer to midmatch mediocrity quite the way Nadal can on occasion, part of why the Spaniard entered Friday with a 24-15 overall lead head-to-head, including 10-3 at Grand Slam tournaments.
"I think at the end of the match I started to play much better, no? But was late. ... " Nadal said. "I think he played aggressive, he played a great match, and just well done for him."
This was the second major in a row where they've faced off: Nadal won their French Open semifinal last month en route to his 12th championship on the red clay there.
Wimbledon, however, is Federer's dominion. He has won 101 matches at the place -- more than any other man at any Slam, even Nadal at Roland Garros. The most recent of his eight trophies was won in 2017.
"[It] is great to be part of this rivalry, be in the middle of these three players [including Djokovic] that achieved that much in this sport in the same era," Nadal said. "Is something that is going to be difficult to see it again. We are not done, so ... things continue."
Lying in wait is Djokovic, who beat Federer in the final here in 2014 and in 2015.
Djokovic sarcastically encouraged fans to get louder after he dropped the second set of his 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 semifinal victory against Bautista Agut.
After watching Bautista Agut's shot hit the net tape, pop in the air and slide over for a winner that tied things at a set apiece, Centre Court spectators stood and cheered. Walking to his changeover chair, Djokovic nodded and waved his racket, then his right hand, at the crowd.
Then he went to work.
"You go through these kind of emotional moments, especially in big matches like this, all the time. ... " Djokovic said. "Sometimes I show my emotions, sometimes I don't."
Soon enough, the defending champion was bellowing and shaking his fist after putting away an overhead to go up a break in the third set. Moments later, he was ending a 45-stroke baseline exchange -- the longest on record at Wimbledon, where such stats date to 2005 -- with a backhand winner to save a break point.
"I had to dig deep," said Djokovic, who will play for his fifth Wimbledon title in six finals appearances and his 16th Grand Slam trophy overall.
It was his 36th career appearance in the final four at a major tournament -- and the debut in that round for Bautista Agut, who was seeded 23rd.
Even Bautista Agut himself didn't expect his visit to the All England Club to last this long: The Spaniard was supposed to meet a half-dozen of his buddies on the island of Ibiza this weekend for his bachelor party. Instead, those pals were sitting in a guest box at Centre Court on Friday.
"He was not really overwhelmed, so to say, with the stadium and with the occasion. He played really well," Djokovic said. "First set, he was still probably managing his nerves and he made some uncharacteristic unforced errors. But later on, at the beginning of the second, he established himself."
After a flat forehand return winner off a 107 mph serve on the very first point, Bautista Agut certainly did lose his way for a bit. Djokovic won 14 of the next 18 points while pulling out to a 3-0 lead -- and he didn't need to produce much magic to do so. Just one of those initial 14 points came via his own winner; 10 resulted from Bautista Agut's unforced errors.
But the second set saw a shift. Djokovic stopped his until-then-successful tactic of offering some variety and heading to the net when he could. His forehand also became problematic, while Bautista Agut, who had already beaten Djokovic twice this season, couldn't seem to miss a shot.
Djokovic rediscovered his best abilities, though. He came up bigger in the longest points, eventually holding a 29-17 edge when they lasted at least 10 strokes.
Once his volley winner found the net tape and trickled over to cap the third set, the outcome seemed inevitable. Djokovic broke to lead 2-1 in the fourth, and again for 4-1, then needed a handful of match points to seal the victory.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.