While it was instantly apparent how well Rafael Nadal’s game worked on clay, assessing his prowess on grass was far more complicated. At 17, in 2003, he’d played his first Wimbledon, won two matches and then been beaten handily in straight sets by Paradorn Srichaphan. An injury kept him off the grass in 2004. In 2005, likely worn out by his debut run to the title at Roland Garros, Nadal had lost in the second round of Wimbledon to an experienced netrusher, Gilles Muller.
But Nadal had often said that he’d hoped one day to win Wimbledon. At his press conference following the loss to Muller, Nadal spoke cogently about his grass court vision. “I think when I improve a lot of myself, I can won a lot of matches here, no, because I am fast,” he said. “I need improve my volley. I need to improve my volley, I need to improve my serve, I need improve my confidence with the game on grass, no? And for that I need play lot of matches.”
Success followed – in ’06 a run to the Wimbledon finals, Nadal going down in four sets to Roger Federer. A repeat effort in ’07, this time the Spaniard extending Federer to five sets.
June 15, 2008 marked a major breakthrough. In the finals of the Stella Artois Championships, the notable pre-Wimbledon tournament played at Queens Club, Nadal took on Novak Djokovic. To reach the finals, Nadal had won four matches. His victims along the way had included such tricky grass court players as disrupter par excellence Ivo Karlovic (Nadal winning in a third set tiebreaker) and a man who by that time had also reached two Wimbledon singles finals, Andy Roddick (a 7-5, 6-4 victory).
The match with Djokovic was also tight, Nadal taking the first set in a tiebreaker and the second 7-5. “This was week was amazing for me,” said Nadal.
But even better things were to come. At Wimbledon, Nadal went on to take the title, beating Federer in the finals in a match that’s arguably the greatest tennis match in history, 9-7 in the fifth. That win made Nadal the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to win Roland Garros and Wimbledon in the same year.
Clearly, he’d at last proven himself a man for all surfaces.