“It's sort of always nice to be part of them. Probably later on in life, you know, I'll go, ‘That was a great match’.”
That had been Roger Federer’s modest assessment immediately after losing the 2008 Wimbledon final to Rafael Nadal 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7. The superlatives would be added on by the watching, awed public, who witnessing the near-five hours of intense battle, proclaimed it the greatest match of tennis ever played. So riveting was it most Britons watching the spectacle on TV did not even move to switch their lights on. At 9.20 pm, after Nadal was handed the trophy, the national power grid of UK saw a spike of 1400 megawatts.
The prospect of the match, meanwhile, had charged up tennis like never before. It was laden with subtext. Federer had not lost at Wimbledon for the past five years; Nadal had never won a Slam outside the French Open. Having won 41 matches on the trot, before the final, Federer was on pace to break Bjorn Borg’s and become the first person in Open era to win six consecutive Wimbledon titles. At the time, Federer was widely recognised as the best player of his generation, a claim challenged only by Nadal. The Spaniard had, only a month ago, beaten Federer in straight sets at the French Open. He was getting ever so close to the Swiss master on grass as well: they had gone head to head on Wimbledon’s final Sunday for the last two years, and Nadal was creeping closer. In 2007, he stretched Federer to five sets.
“My defeat in 2007, which went to five sets, left me utterly destroyed. I wept after that loss,” Nadal wrote in his autobiography. “I cried incessantly for half an hour in the dressing room. Tears of disappointment and self-recrimination. One year later I was determined that whatever else gave way, this time my head would not. The gap in talent with Federer existed, but it was not impossibly wide so I knew that if I silenced the doubts and fears, and exaggerated hopes, inside my head better than he did, I could beat him.”
Nadal clearly got inside Federer’s head like no other rival, and it was evident from the 11-6 head-to-head record he held.
The two players entered the high-stakes contest, clad in white and the enormity of the occasion written all over their faces. But there was no time for nerves. It was all systems go from the first point, when they engaged in a fierce 14-point rally, tugging each other at all corners of the court. Nadal won the opening point as he hooked a forehand winner.
Even on grass, Nadal was dogging Federer’s steps, making him doubt and dither. The Swiss could not roll past Nadal like he did against other rivals with a swish of his racquet. Nadal always there at the right place, and the right time, with a fearsome riposte and kept asking more of Federer. The five-time champion did not have enough answers in the beginning, as he lost the first set and then the second, despite breaking him for a 4-1 lead.
The roles had reversed. Nadal was now the enforcer, Federer the retriever. And Nadal was winning that battle so far.
The match was interrupted by rain at 5-4 on serve for Federer in the third set. The 80-minute breather was just what Federer needed to hit the reset button.
He came out ready for a fight and the third set tie-break 7-5. The forehand was sharp again and Federer fired a return winner and then a down-the-line winner to wrest control of the breaker at 5-2. He served it out with an ace.
But it was the fourth set, and the dramatic tie-breaker that pushed the match onto a higher plane and drew parallels with the epic battle between John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg in the 1980 Wimbledon final. McEnroe had won that tie-break 18-16, but eventually lost the match 1–6, 7–5, 6–3, 6–7(16), 8–6. It was the final against which all others were measured. Twenty-eight years later, with Borg watching from the stands and McEnroe commentating over it, Federer and Nadal were pushing the bar higher. They put the class into classic.
Nadal had jumped to a 5-2 lead in the tie-break and was only two points away from becoming the first Spaniard since Manuel Santana, in 1967, to win Wimbledon. But Federer leveled it to 5-5 and at match point down, closed down a lengthy rally with a backhand pass from the double alley. At 7-7, Nadal replied with some artistry of his own, squeezing a forehand pass against the stretching Federer. The Swiss kept his nerve to take the tie-breaker 10-8.
Despite having seen his two-set lead blown away, Nadal refused to give in.
The two kept up with the high, unrelenting quality of play even in the fifth set, despite another rain interruption. The skies over Centre Court were darkening and the genteel surroundings of Wimbledon had taken on the look of a Colosseum closing down on two gladiators. The usually polite crowd was now gasping and applauding mid-rally as the two best players threw meaty blows at each other.
With the light fast fading, Federer saved two break points in the 11th game. But he couldn’t resist the pressure exerted by Nadal four games later. A ripping flat backhand winner by Nadal on his fourth break point gave Nadal a decisive 8-7 lead in the decider. The referee would have brought an end to the proceedings had Federer broken back, but it wasn’t to be.
Federer saved one match point with a backhand return, which zipped cross court at an unbelievable angle. Blindingly brilliant. But that was the last spark from the Federer racquet. At advantage, Nadal made a safe serve that got a soft response from Federer. The tentative Swiss then drove a forehand volley right into the net; Nadal was flat on his back and the crowd on their feet.
“It’s the best victory of his career; mentally he’s never been as strong, not even at the French Open,” Toni Nadal, Rafael Nadal’s coach and uncle, later said.
A thousand flashbulbs pierced the near-darkness at Centre Court as Nadal held the trophy aloft. Having taken away Federer’s Wimbledon crown, Nadal ended Federer’s 237-week reign as World No 1 two months later. A year later a retractable roof was Centre Court meant Wimbledon would never witness such a late finish. It might be sometime till it witnesses such a great finish as well.
Updated Date: Jun 30, 2018 12:21:44 IST