It has been almost three weeks since Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer battled so gallantly and unwaveringly in the final of Wimbledon. They played a match that must rank right up there with the best of all time. At the end of 1999, I wrote a book entitled, “The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century”. My top five men’s matches were as follows: 1) Borg-McEnroe 1980 Wimbledon final; 2)Don Budge-Baron Gottfried von Cramm Davis Cup 1937; 3) Ken Rosewall-Rod Laver, WCT Finals, Dallas, 1972; 4) Pancho Gonzalez-Charlie Pasarell, Wimbledon, 1969; 5) Henri Cochet-Bill Tilden, Wimbledon, 1927.
Assessing the best matches ever nearly ten years later, I would place Nadal-Federer in a virtual tie with the epic Borg-McEnroe 1980 Wimbledon title round match. The Borg-McEnroe skirmish turned into a masterpiece between a baseliner who adapted his game admirably for the grass, and a singularly gifted serve-and-volleyer who exhibited supreme touch on the volley. That match took a while to warm up into something larger. McEnroe swarmed all over Borg at the outset and took the first set 6-1. Borg fought back sedulously to win the second 7-5, and then took the third relatively comfortably at 6-3.
When Borg served for the match at 5-4 in the fourth set, he led 40-15, double match point. Somehow, McEnroe escaped and broke back. They moved on to a tie-break, and McEnroe saved five more match points in that unimaginable sequence. Borg saved six set points. The tennis was the best by far that the match produced. McEnroe took that tie-break 18-16 to force a fifth set. Borg conceded later how much despondency he felt as he served in the opening game of that final set. He went down 0-30, but with typical composure and resilience, Borg served his way out of it.
From that juncture on, Borg put on the serving display of his career, winning 28 of 29 points on his delivery across the fifth set. But McEnroe’s fighting spirit kept him in the contest. The great left-hander held from 0-40 in the second game of the fifth set. He held on again from 0-40 at 3-4. But with his back to the wall once more at 6-7, Borg would not allow the American to escape. With a vintage two-handed backhand pass crosscourt, Borg prevailed 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7, 8-6.
That match will be cherished for the almost magical tie-break. And there was some very high quality stuff played the rest of the way, particularly in the third and fifth sets. But Nadal and Federer waged five sets that always hung in the balance. On paper, the first two sets make it seem as if Nadal was in comfortable control. He took both sets 6-4. But neither was easy by any means. Nadal had to fend off a break point at 5-4 in the first set as he served it out. And he had to battle from 1-4 down in the second, winning five games in a row for a two set to love lead.
Those were two extraordinary sets, but the standard of play would only be elevated over the last three sets. Federer was down 0-40 at 3-3 in the third set. Had he been broken there, the match might well have ended in a straight set verdict for the Spaniard. But the Swiss maestro coolly worked his way out of that corner. The players had to leave the court for a rain delay with Nadal ready to serve at 4-5. When they returned, they played a tie-break to settle that set, and Federer was irresistibly good, serving four aces, not giving up a single point on his delivery. Federer took that playoff seven points to five.
In the fourth set, Nadal regained the initiative in many ways and held on throughout the set with greater ease than Federer. In six service games, Nadal conceded only six points. And then he seemingly had the match well within his reach. He was serving with a 5-2 lead, poised to capture the championship he values above all others. But at 5-2, he double faulted off the net cord. He followed with a tentative point, as Federer forced him into an errant backhand. Nadal should have— at the very least— reached triple match point after serving those two points. Instead, an opportunistic and determined Federer was back in the tie-break.
Federer served his way to a 6-5 lead, reaching set point on Nadal’s serve. But the Spaniard took two points in a row to reach match point for the first time. Federer sent out a brilliant wide serve to Nadal’s forehand in the advantage court, and the No. 2 seed barely made contact with the ball. It was 7-7. Nadal then raced swiftly to his left for an astonishing forehand passing shot winner down the line. He was at match point for the second time, this one on his own serve.
He sliced his first serve out wide to the Federer backhand, and the Swiss chipped a return short near the service line. Nadal was too cautious, rolling his forehand approach crosscourt and closing in, figuring the pressure was on his adversary to come up with a brilliant backhand passing shot. Federer did just that, lacing his backhand down the line for a clean winner. It was 8-8. Federer had saved two match points. Two points later, he wrapped up the set, and was back to two sets all.
At 2-2 in the fifth set and Federer serving at deuce, a second rain delay occurred. I wondered later how Nadal must have felt as he walked back to the locker room. Surely, he must have been asking himself how the match could still be going on, and wondering why it was not over. It must have been awfully hard for him, while Federer was clearly growing more optimistic. They returned and proceeded to play some astounding tennis under the circumstances. The light was fading rapidly. The pressure was intense on both sides of the net. One of these two great men was going to record a singularly exhilarating victory, but the other was on his way to a heartbreaking setback.
At 3-4 in the fifth set, Nadal was break point down on his serve. Had he lost that point, Federer would have been serving for the match. But Nadal crowded Federer with a stinging first serve into the body on the forehand side. Federer’s return was relatively weak, and Nadal crunched an inside-out forehand that Federer could only scrape back. Nadal moved in quickly to put away a bounce smash. He held on for 4-4. At 4-5, Nadal served at 30-30, two points away from defeat. He got his first serve in, came in on Federer’s backhand, and forced the five-time defending champion to slice a lob long off the backhand.
It was soon 5-5, and Federer found himself 15-40 down . He released an ace on the first break point, attacked on the second to force a mishit pass from Nadal, and held on for 6-5. At 6-6, Federer was in the danger zone again, behind 0-30. He cracked an ace down the T, and eventually held on for 7-6.
That meant that Nadal was serving to save the match for the third time in the 14th game. He did not blink. He did not flinch. He refused to surrender. At 6-7,40-30, Nadal tried to put away a smash. He struck the overhead with all his might, but Federer displayed extraordinary touch, slicing a lob off the backhand down the line, lofting the ball into the corner. Nadal had to chase it down, driving his forehand deep to the Federer backhand. Federer tried to steer his shot to Nadal’s backhand, but the Spaniard ran around it and whipped a forehand inside out for a winner. He was euphoric. It was 7-7.
Once more, Federer drifted into a burdensome position. Serving at 7-7,15-40, he came up with yet another clutch play. He delivered his 25th and final ace of the contest to save that break point, then forced Nadal into a backhand passing shot mistake. Federer then saved a third break point with a brilliant service winner. But, down break point for the fourth time in this critical game, Federer drove a forehand approach down the middle but long. At long last, for the first time since late in the second set, Nadal had broken Federer.
Serving for the match with the sky dramatically dark, Nadal went to match point for the third time, only to have Federer pull off yet another spectacular play under pressure. Nadal hit a good wide slice serve to the backhand, the same serve that had worked so well throughout the battle. But Federer got over the top of the ball quickly and surely, driving his backhand crosscourt and almost out of reach. Nadal had no chance. At deuce, Nadal caught Federer off guard with an excellent first serve deep and wide to the forehand. Federer missed, and not narrowly.
It was 9:16 in the evening. Nadal was at match point for the fourth time. Federer got a midcourt ball on his forehand and tried to drive it crosscourt. His shot landed in the net. The record breaking four hour, 48 minute men’s final was over. Nadal had won 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7. For the first time since Borg had done it in 1980, a man had won the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year.
Remarkably, Nadal had lost his serve only once in five long sets. He had fought off 12 of 13 break points Federer had against him. He had tenaciously stood his ground after Federer had willfully worked his way back into the match. Nadal had prevented Federer from becoming the first modern man to win at the All England Club six years in a row. And he had achieved his win in a match which historians will always hold in the highest regard.
Borg and McEnroe provided a better contrast in styles, with McEnroe attacking at every opportunity and pitting his superior skill at the net against Borg’s outstanding baseline skills, with Borg making certain to get in behind his first serve skillfully, forcing McEnroe into countless errors on backhand returns and passing shots. That was a match I thought I would never see surpassed. Now I am not so sure.
I have to say,though, that I don’t hesitate to put Nadal-Federer above Budge-Von Cramm, Laver-Rosewall and Pasarell-Gonzalez. Laver and Rosewall were all time great players who had waged one of the longest rivalries on record first in the wilderness of professional tennis and then on into the “Open Era”. But they were past their primes when they met in Dallas— especially Laver. Budge, believed by authorities in his day to be the greatest player of that era, always recalled his duel with Von Cramm as his greatest. Budge came from two sets down and 1-4 in the fifth set to win. But it was not a Challenge Round Davis Cup contest and Von Cramm was not Fred Perry or Jack Kramer. And Gonzalez’s win over Pasarell (22-24,1-6, 16-14,6-3,11-9) was a first round match. It was a phenomenal victory for the 41-year-old former world champion, but Pasarell was not an all time great.
Here at Wimbledon in 2008 were the two best players in the world, at the peak of their powers, meeting for the third consecutive year in the final of the world’s premier tennis tournament. Furthermore, Nadal had toppled Federer in the 2006-2008 French Open finals. So the situation was unprecedented. These two men were meeting for the sixth time in a three year stretch in a major final. And all through the afternoon, through the rain delays, through the shifts in momentum, across the long hours, they pushed themselves to their absolute limits. The outcome was in doubt until Federer’s last forehand found the net.
I still have not completely made up my mind whether or not Nadal-Federer 2008 tops Borg-McEnroe 1980. But I do know this: I don’t expect to see a better tennis match in my lifetime.