2008: Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer produced a quantum leap in quality and entertainment in their classic, daylong finalBy Jun 22, 2022
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2008: Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer produced a quantum leap in quality and entertainment in their classic, daylong final
The contest will stand as a monument to the game’s early-21st century golden era.
Published Jun 22, 2022
Centre Court turns 100 this year. During that time, this bastion of propriety and tradition has also borne witness to a century’s worth of progress and tennis democratization. For its centennial, we look back at 10 of its most historic and sport-changing matches.
Rafael Nadal d. Roger Federer
6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7
2008 Wimbledon men’s final
Few tennis matches have 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 on Centre Court. Federer had been ranked No. 1 and Nadal No. 2 for the better part of three years, and they had faced each other in the previous two Wimbledon finals. Federer had won both, but in 2007 Nadal had pushed him to five sets. By ’08, many believed that Rafa was ready to become the first Spaniard to win Wimbledon since 1967. In the French Open final one month earlier, he had allowed Federer just four games.
Each man came to Wimbledon that year with a special motivation. Federer was attempting to become the first man since the 1880s to win six consecutive titles there. He was also looking to stop the seemingly unstoppable progress of the 22-year-old Nadal, who was close to snapping Federer’s 230-week hold on No. 1. After winning Wimbledon the previous year, Federer had smilingly said of Rafa, “I’m happy with every one I get, before he takes them all.” Now he was determined to get at least one more. In ’08, Federer had bounced back quickly from his Roland Garros shellacking 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 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.” 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. He assured him that, at 22, 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.
Nadal struggled to believe his uncle that day in 2007, but a year later he found himself back in the same place, with another chance to beat Federer. The first point of the match had given 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.
The court they were playing on had been a major factor in the evolution of that modern game, as well as the 21st-century golden era in men’s tennis that Federer and Nadal had spearheaded. Seven years earlier, Wimbledon had replaced its formerly slick and bumpy grass with a hardier, truer, and slower all-rye turf. In a few short years, the traditional style on grass—serve and volley—had given way to a new emphasis on aggressive baseline play. Federer was Exhibit A in this shift. He had been schooled in the old method, and had served-and-volleyed his way to a win over Pete Sampras on Centre Court in 2001. By 2003, the year he won his first title there, he had moved much of his attack to the baseline. As for the clay-loving Nadal, he thrived on the new grass in a way that the dirt-ballers of the past never could. Together in 2008, Federer and Nadal combined to produce a quantum leap in quality and entertainment value on Centre Court.
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 reeled 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 and do something he hadn’t done before: Nadal to win Wimbledon, on the surface least hospitable to his game; Federer, the game’s great front-runner, to complete a stirring comeback in a Grand Slam final.
Time and again, Nadal threatened to close it out; time and again, Federer wouldn’t 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 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 it 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 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 say later. “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.’”
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, he 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 foray 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 2008 final was the longest in Wimbledon history to that point. It snapped Federer’s streak of five titles, and led, the following month, to Nadal’s rise to No. 1 for the first time. It also marked the end of the 130-year era of the rain delay on Centre Court. A new, retractable roof was visible at the top of the stadium as Federer and Nadal played; the following year it would make its debut.
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 tennis journalist Chris Bowers wrote, “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.”