Wimbledon throwback: The greatest game ever played?

The most prestigious event on the tennis calendar, Wimbledon, was supposed to begin on June 29. But the major, known for its manicured lawns and crisp white attire, has been cancelled due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Through the fortnight, we will feature some of the most memorable Wimbledon finals. Today, we look back at the third consecutive final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, a five-set thriller that is considered the greatest match in history…

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Roger Federer (left) congratulates Rafael Nadal at the trophy presentation

2008: Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer 6-4, 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-7(8), 9-7

For 28 years, the men’s singles final between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe had been rated the best match the sport had ever witnessed.

It was a five-set classic in which the narrative changed direction without warning, but left in its wake a display of gripping tennis, all intertwined by a rivalry of the ages.

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When the reigning five-time Wimbledon champion Roger Federer stepped on Centre Court for the 2008 final, along with his biggest rival and vanquished finalist from the previous two editions, Rafael Nadal, another thriller was on the cards.

But by the end of the Championship match, that lasted around seven hours because of rain delays – the actual playing time was four hours and 48 minutes, the longest final played at Wimbledon at the time – it had dislodged the Borg-McEnroe final as the greatest game ever played.

Borg, who watched the match from the stands later told The Guardian: “That’s the best tennis match I’ve ever seen in my life. I was just happy to be there, to be a part of that final.”

McEnroe, who commentated during the match later said: “The greatest match I’ve ever seen.”

The match saw the end to 41-game winning run for Federer at Wimbledon, dating back to his triumph in 2003. It also gave Nadal his first major title outside Roland Garros.

Battling demons

The duo had won 16 of the previous 20 Grand Slam titles — going back to Federer’s run at Wimbledon 2003.

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The Swiss had won 12 majors at the time, Nadal, the world no 2, had won each of his four at the French Open. But just as he had been in the previous two editions, the Spaniard was a win away from becoming only the third player in the Open Era to have won the French Open and Wimbledon crowns in the same year – the other two were Rod Laver and Borg.

Federer, 26, stood in the way, but the world no 1 was still struggling to mentally overcome the drubbing he had received just a month back in the final in Paris, at the hands of the 22-year-old Nadal.

Rafael Nadal

 

“My problem was that I had lost in the French Open final a moth earlier against Rafa in a terrible way,” Federer said in a documentary Strokes of Genius. “He crushed me. He blew me off the court.”

Nadal too, ahead of the final, was struggling to put behind the loss in the title match at Wimbledon 2007.

It had left him “utterly destroyed,” he had penned in his autobiography, Rafa: My Story. “I had let myself down and I hated that. I had flagged mentally.”

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Both were on their guard as soon as the match started, knowing the pain their opponent could inflict upon them. You could tell it in the way they started the match with a 14-stroke rally. Nadal though, took great confidence in that point.

“A first point like that gives you confidence,” he wrote in his book. “(It was) the first step in curing a hurt I’d been carrying for 12 months. My objective now was to convey to him that he was going to have to spend hours stretched to the limit.”

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In that opening game itself, Nadal broke Federer’s serve –  it was only the third time the entire tournament that the Swiss had dropped serve.

The Spaniard then went on to win the first two sets 6-4, 6-4. Then came the rain.

Play resumes, Federer returns

“I believe the rain delay probably woke me up,” Federer said in the documentary. “I said: ‘If we’re going to go out of this match, at least you’re going to go down swinging.”

And Federer swings it more gracefully, yet devastatingly, than any other player.

He started to fight back and refused to let Nadal capitalise on the momentum he had built in the first two sets.

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The Swiss needed a tiebreaker to take the third set. And then another ‘breaker to level the match – but not without saving two Championships Points and unleashing one of the finest backhand passing shots the game has witnessed.

In fact, Federer’s winner came just after Nadal played a magnificent pass of his own.

Tied on 7-7, Federer came up to the net after an approach shot and got Nadal into a tight position deep onto his forehand-side with a volley. The Spaniard ran down the shot and played, on the stretch, a perfect down-the-line forehand pass.

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In the next rally, on Nadal’s serve, Federer played that backhand down-the-line winner with Nadal at the net.

“The two best passing shots of the tournament, without doubt, have just taken place on the last two points,” BBC commentator Andrew Castle said at the time.

Federer went on to level the match by winning the tiebreaker 10-8.

More rain

Another spell of rain meant about a 30 minute delay.

When play resumed, both competitors were level at 2-sets each. And there was nothing on court that could split the two.

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But there was a growing danger that the match might need to be suspended till the following day. Daylight had started to fade to the point that Hawk-Eye stopped functioning as the cameras couldn’t track the ball.

At 7-7, tournament referee Andrew Jarrett declared that the match would be stopped after two more games. As it panned out, that was all Nadal needed.

Finishing touches

The Spaniard opened up a 15-40 lead on Federer’s serve with a backhand cross-court winner, which wrong-footed the Swiss. Federer had dug out of that scoreline twice in the deciding set in the 2007 final. And he brought the game level to deuce again, having gunned down a wide ace on the first break point.

Nadal earned a fourth break point when Federer ran around his backhand but sent the forehand straight into the net. Another forehand miss by the Swiss gave Nadal a crucial 8-7 lead.

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With daylight fading quickly, the yellow lights in the stands were flicked on and the camera flashes visible as Nadal poised to serve for the Championships. The crowd was on its feet but the two men in white remained calm, in their bubble of competition. Shot for shot, point for point.

At 30-40, down the first match-point, Federer cracked a backhand winner, which just arched away from Nadal running in at full steam. It was to be Federer’s last ditch at defence, his last act of defiance.

A service winner from Nadal saw him edge ahead, and the match came to a close when Federer hooked a forehand into the net. The Spaniard fell flat to the ground in celebration, his feet finally too tired to carry the weight of ambition.

No matter where Federer hit the ball, it pinged right back, forcing him to take more risks, make more errors. The Swiss hit 25 aces, to Nadal’s six, and 89 winners, to Nadal’s 60, but he still couldn’t find the knockout punch.

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In almost five hours the Spaniard made all of 27 errors as he claimed his first Wimbledon crown.

This was the sixth time the pair met in a Grand Slam final – Nadal won each of their three French Open final meetings, Federer the previous two finals at Wimbledon. But the Spaniard had now extended his reign to the grass-courts. Nadal roared in delight as darkness descended upon Centre Court.

It was as close as tennis got to a midnight coup.

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