The two best players of their generation, perhaps any generation, went toe-to-toe in the 2008 Wimbledon final.
Roger Federer had won Wimbledon for the last five years, matching Bjorn Borg’s record for consecutive titles. The last two of those were capped by final triumphs over Rafael Nadal, the new and undisputed King of Clay.
The Spaniard was beaten in four sets in the 2006 final, and took Federer the distance in 2007. He came into the 2008 tournament on the back of his fourth consecutive French Open victory and his first grass court title at Queen’s Club. Federer warmed up for Wimbledon with his fifth title in Halle.
Both men made serene progress to the final in SW19. Federer did not drop a set, beating former champion Lleyton Hewitt in the fourth round, Mario Ancic in the quarter-finals, and Marat Safin in the semis. Nadal dropped just one set, in the second round to Ernests Gulbis, before brushing aside Andy Murray in the quarters and unseeded German Rainer Schuettler in the last four.
Incredibly, 22-year-old Nadal was getting better and better. He demolished Federer 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 in the final at Roland Garros, passing the Swiss at will as he moved into the net. Federer’s attacking gameplan came to nought that day and he changed tactics, perhaps wrongly, when they next met at Wimbledon.
Federer had, and still has, a great all-round game. Back then, he was one of the best baseliners around, but the gap from Nadal to the rest was a yawning one. Nadal’s whipped topspin forehand is one of the most devastating shots tennis has seen, and it was at its most potent from 2008 to 2010.
The humbling at Roland Garros made Federer reluctant to come in, with Nadal able to dictate from the back of the court and breaking in the fourth game before taking the first set 6-4.
Having shown greater attacking intent at the end of the first, Federer continued in the same vein at the start of the second set. But Nadal roared back from 2-4 down to level at 4-4 before breaking again with some wonderful forehands and closing the set out 6-4.
The third set went with serve before the rain came again – the start had also been delayed by a downpour – with Federer 5-4 in front. Speaking in the recent ‘Strokes of Genius’ documentary about the match, Federer admitted he had been scarred by the French Open reverse and that he needed the first two sets to “shake it off”. He added, “I believe that that rain delay probably woke me up. I said, ‘If we’re going to go out of this match, at least you’re going to go down swinging.'”
The fourth went to another tiebreak, this one bearing comparison with Borg-McEnroe in 1980 largely down to two miraculous passing shots. Nadal led 5-2 but then showed he was human by serving a double fault and then netting a backhand. The first incredible pass came from Nadal, a running forehand down the line for 8-7 and a second championship point.
The second came moments later – Federer with a superb backhand down the line past Nadal at the net to save the match. Two huge forehands later and the defending champion had set point. Nadal sent a return long and it was two sets all. The two all-time greats close to the peak of their powers in a one-set shootout for the Wimbledon title.
At 2-2, 40-40, there was another rain delay but the pair were back on court within half an hour. With no final set tiebreaks at Wimbledon, there was a chance of a Monday finish and that looked increasingly likely as both men threw everything at each other.
In ‘Strokes of Genius’, Nadal said, “I wasn’t going to fail. I’d be ready to compete till the end. Federer could win, but I wasn’t going to lose.”
He had to save a break point at 3-4 but they went on, and on. At 7-7 in the gathering gloom past nine o’clock, Nadal struck. A blistering cross-court backhand brought up two break points which Federer saved without fuss. He also saved a third but a long forehand handed Nadal the crucial break.
Nadal got to 40-30 and a third championship point but Federer survived with the cheekiest of backhand returns. A fourth was too much, however, as a Nadal backhand took an odd bounce and Federer netted the forehand. After four hours and 48 minutes, the King of Clay had ended the GOAT’s 41-match unbeaten run at Wimbledon and won the famous silver gilt trophy.
I have to disagree with those who believe it to be the greatest tennis match ever played. For entertainment, atmosphere and sheer drama, nothing beats the 2001 Wimbledon final between Goran Ivanisevic and Pat Rafter. And as far as a pure tennis contest goes, the semi-final that year between Rafter and Andre Agassi would be number one on my list.
But this was possibly the best match between arguably the two greatest players in history. I remember thinking Federer was far too passive in the early stages but he showed incredible resolve to come back from two sets down. The final set really could have gone either way and it was the tenacious streetfighter from Mallorca who came out – deservedly, I’d say – on top.
The rest is history – Nadal was stunned by Robin Soderling at Roland Garros the following year with Federer clinching that elusive French Open title. Nadal then won three Slams out of four in 2010 before Novak Djokovic began his reign, bar the French where Nadal remained dominant.
And now, 10 years later, there is a reasonable chance Nadal and Federer will again be battling it out in a Wimbledon final. Now 32 and 36 respectively, both have returned to something like their brilliant best while Djokovic and Murray have struggled with injury. Federer won a record eighth Wimbledon title last year, without dropping a set, and few would bet against him clinching number nine for his 21st Grand Slam title next Sunday.
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Also published on Medium.