2008: Nadal beats Federer in the greatest match of all time

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Nadal and Federer produced a match that far exceeded the hype, and rewrote the standard of tennis excellence. (AP Photo)

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Few tennis matches have ever been anticipated as eagerly as the one that was played on July 6, 2008, when Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer squared off in the Wimbledon final. Federer had been ranked No. 1 and Nadal No. 2 for the better part of three years; during that time they had established themselves as the decade’s dominant players, and their rivalry as one of the most compelling in any sport.

They had also faced each other in the previous two Wimbledon finals; Federer had won them both, but in 2007 Nadal had pushed him to five sets. By ’08, many believed that Rafa was ready to take the final step and become the first Spaniard to win Wimbledon since 1967. In the French Open final one month earlier, he had allowed Federer just four games in a straight-set thrashing.

Each of them came to the Wimbledon final that year with a special motivation. Federer was attempting to become the first man since the 1880s to win six consecutive titles at the sport’s most prestigious event. He was also looking to halt the seemingly inexorable progress of the 22-year-old Nadal, who had narrowed the ranking-point gap that season and was close to snapping Federer’s 230-week hold on No. 1. After winning Wimbledon the previous year, Federer had said of Rafa, “I’m happy with every one I get, before he takes them all.” He was determined to get at least one more. In ’08, Federer had bounced back quickly from his embarrassing French Open loss and reached the Wimbledon final without dropping a set.

As for Nadal, he was trying to put the sickening memory of the ’07 defeat behind him for good. That match, Nadal said, had left him “utterly destroyed.” What pained him more than anything was that he had let it get away, had let himself tighten up when momentum was with him early in the fifth set. “I wept after that loss,” Nadal admitted. “I cried incessantly for half an hour in the dressing room. Tears of disappointment and recrimination.”

It was so bad that Rafa’s uncle, Toni Nadal, “the toughest of tennis coaches,” refrained for once from criticizing his nephew, and offered consolation instead. Toni assured him that there would be more Wimbledon finals to come. The two of them, bucking the Spanish clay-court tradition, had always made winning this tournament, rather than the French Open, the ultimate goal. Wimbledon’s grass had never been the surface of choice in Spain, which only made Rafa and Toni want it more.

Nadal struggled to believe his uncle that day in 2007, but one year later he found himself back on the same court, facing the same opponent, with another chance to make history. The first point of the match gave the world an indication both of what was to come, and who would eventually prevail.

Federer and Nadal, standing toe-to-toe on top of their respective baselines, wasted no time in engaging in a fierce, 14-shot rally; taking full-blooded cuts at the ball, they moved each other from one corner to the other until Nadal hooked a forehand down the line and just out of Federer’s reach. It was a little after 2:00 P.M. and the gasps from the audience could already be heard. They would continue, with little let-up, until the last ball was struck more than seven hours later. In between, Federer and Nadal, chasing each other’s bullets all over the court, conducted a master class in the modern, power-baseline game.

Yet despite the stratospheric level of play, for the better part of the first three sets the ’08 final looked like it was going to be a blowout rather than a classic. Nadal broke Federer in the third game and held out for a 6-4 first-set win. In the second set, Federer appeared ready to turn the tables when he went up 4-1, but Nadal ripped off five straight games to go up two sets to love. Going back to the French Open, Nadal had now won five straight sets against Federer, and when he went up 0-40 on Federer’s serve at 3-3 in the third, he seemed sure to make it a sixth. But Nadal, as he had the previous year, grew anxious with a chance to put the match away. Federer held serve, and held on just long enough for an 80-minute rain delay to slow Nadal’s momentum.

From that point on, the match would turn from a rout for Rafa into a long, painstaking comeback by Federer. Each was trying to go against type: Nadal was attempting to win Wimbledon, on the surface least hospitable to his game; Federer, the game’s great front-runner, was attempting to complete a stirring comeback in a Grand Slam final. 

Time and again, Nadal threatened to close it out; time and again, Federer, relying on his serve when all else failed, refused to let the door shut. Serving at 4-5 in the fourth set, Federer went down 0-30 before coming back to hold. In the tiebreaker a few minutes later, he went down 2-5, and saved a championship point with a running backhand pass struck from outside the singles sideline. The shot was part of a furious, back-and-forth exchange of winners that pushed the match to its dramatic peak. 

When it was over and Federer had won the breaker 10-8, he believed the title would soon be his. Many in the audience were reminded of another historic fourth-set tiebreaker that had taken place on this court, the 18-16 tightrope walk between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe in 1980. But few expected Nadal to match Borg’s performance that day, when the icy Swede had lost the fourth-set breaker tiebreaker after holding championship points, yet somehow recovered to win the fifth set anyway.

Even Rafa’s family and friends looked out from his player’s box with concern; they remembered too well the tears of 2007. When another rain delay stopped play at 2-2 in the fifth set, Nadal’s father, Sebastian, was sure that his son was “condemned to lose.” When Toni Nadal arrived in the locker room, his nephew could see the strain on his face. “Look,” Toni said grimly, “however small the possibility might be of victory, fight to the very end.” His uncle assumed that Rafa would be haunted by the opportunities he had squandered. 

“He’d misread me,” Nadal would later write in his autobiography. “He was operating on the previous year’s script...I was operating on a different script. He was surprised by my reply. ‘Relax. Don’t worry. I can do it...I won’t lose as I did last year.’”

Nadal and Federer returned to the court at 8:00 P.M. and, their levels hardly dipping, fought their way into the fading light of an overcast London evening—“I couldn’t see nothing,” Nadal would say later. When the score reached 6-6, tournament referee Andrew Jarrett told the players that they would come off after two more games. At 7-7, though, Jarrett told them to go out for two more. That was two too many for Federer, as his comeback, which was nearly six hours in the making, finally ran out of steam. Nadal broke for 8-7, and, after surprising Federer with his first serve-and-volley point of the match, held for the title. 

When Nadal landed, flat on his back, at 9:17 P.M., an explosion of flash bulbs pierced the darkness inside Centre Court, as if the moment had set off an electrical current that circled the stadium. And it may have: London officials reported that the city experienced a massive surge of electricity when the match ended, as thousands of viewers, after a day spent glued to the TV, finally got up to turn the lights on.

At four hours and 48 minutes, the ’08 final was the longest in Wimbledon history. It snapped Federer’s streak of five titles, and led, the following month, to Nadal’s ascension to No. 1 for the first time. Yet those milestones feel incidental to the contest itself, which will stand as a monument to the game’s early-21st century golden era. As the British journalist Chris Bowers summed up, “Nadal won the match, Federer lost it, and the whole of tennis, if not the whole of sport, won through the sheer quality and drama of one of the best pieces of sporting theater tennis has ever produced.”

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