“Tennis is cruel,” Federer said when it was finally over.
He knew. He had seen it from both sides. The previous year, Federer had lost the longest Wimbledon final, in terms of time played, to Rafael Nadal. Now, 12 months later, he had won the longest Wimbledon final, in terms of games played, over Roddick.
This time it was Roddick’s turn to rue missed opportunities; he certainly had his share over the course of this four-hour, 88-game epic. The American had lost finals on the same court, to the same man, in 2004 and 2005, but on this July 4th he was closer than ever, and he had played better than ever. Roddick was so close, in fact, that all he had to do was drop one more ball over the net and he would have had a two-set lead. After winning the first set, Roddick led the second-set tiebreaker 6-2, and soon after that had an all-but-unmissable putaway backhand volley. Except that he missed it. Then he lost the second set.
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Roddick recovered and fought on for three more hours, but he had given Federer new life, and Federer knew how to make the most of it. While his opponent owned the 140-m.p.h. serve, it was Federer’s serve that proved crucial on this day. He hit 50 aces, one short of the Wimbledon record. Down 15-40 at 8-8 in the fifth, one point from almost certain defeat, Federer fired off two unreturnable serves. An hour later, Federer had won his men’s-record 15th Grand Slam title, an honor he accepted with that number emblazoned in gold on the back of his white Wimbledon jacket, in front of the man he had passed, Pete Sampras.
As for Roddick, he played the match of his career, but was left holding the runner-up trophy on Centre Court for the third time. Yet when it was suggested that, as Federer had said, tennis was cruel, Roddick would have none of it.
“No,” he said, “I’m one of the lucky few who gets cheered for.”
On this day, the fans at Wimbledon were happy to oblige both men with ovations. If Roddick had put away that backhand volley in the second-set tiebreaker, or converted one of his break points in the fifth set, he might be a Wimbledon champion, and we would remember his career very differently than we do today. Instead of a photo of him holding the trophy, we have the words of his gracious and funny runner-up speech, which more than measured up to the match that he and Federer has just played. That’s not a bad thing to be remembered for, either.
Strokes of Genius is a world-class documentary capturing the historic 13-year rivalry between tennis icons Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It is timed for release as the anticipation crests with Roger as returning champion, 10 years after their famed 2008 Wimbledon championship – an epic match so close and so reflective of their competitive balance that, in the end, the true winner was the sport itself.