by Steve Flink
I just flew back to the U.S. from London after spending two weeks watching the world’s most significant tennis tournament at Wimbledon, and during the journey home all I could think about was Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer battling ferociously on the British grass, fighting valiantly for nearly five hours, turning their final round showdown into as prodigious and gripping a match as this game has ever seen. As I wrote in my previous column, I rank it right up there in my top two matches of all time with the Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe blockbuster at Wimbledon in 1980.
As is the case with all enduringly great matches, something very much out of the ordinary must occur to turn what could have been a very good but not a sublime contest into something larger and even transcendent, something with lasting implications. In the case of Borg-McEnroe 1980, Borg was serving for the match at 5-4, 40-15 in the fourth set, on the verge of completing an impressive come from behind triumph. Borg-not to be underestimated as a server on grass— seemed certain to close out that account right then and there. But McEnroe refused to surrender.
On the first match point, Borg ventured forward but McEnroe passed him cleanly down the line off the backhand. On the second, Borg did not do enough with his backhand volley and a bold McEnroe moved forward on the run to make a forehand swing volley winner. Soon thereafter, McEnroe broke. History unfolded almost inconceivably from that juncture forward. The two towering competitors proceeded to a tie-break, and McEnroe saved five more match points, winning that sequence 18-16 on his seventh set point. It was the tie-break of all tie-breaks, a shining moment for sports, and then the players pushed on into a fifth set.
Borg could easily have been forgiven for drifting into pessimism and even despair after so many opportunities had eluded him. But he recovered his inner security quickly after trailing 0-30 on his serve in the crucial opening game of the fifth set. Borg lost only one more point on serve the rest of the way. He fought on gallantly to record a 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7, 8-6 triumph. In this Nadal-Federer collision at Wimbledon, Nadal could well have won much sooner. He led two sets to love and had Federer in a bind at 3-3, 0-40 in the third set. Had he come through there, almost surely the Spaniard would have marched on to a straight set triumph.
But Federer held, and eventually played an immaculate third set tie-break when he released four aces and gave nothing away. In the fourth set, Nadal had the match on his racket, serving at 5-2 with a chance to finish the job. He uncharacteristically double faulted. Federer stormed back, and later saved two match points in that tie-break, sending out a service winner wide to the forehand on the first and a scintillating backhand passing shot winner down the line on the second. Federer improbably climbed back even at two sets all.
Now Federer seemed very likely to complete a startling comeback. He was serving first in the fifth set, the same advantage Borg had against McEnroe in the 1980 championship match. Every time Nadal served, he knew that his back was to the wall. At 3-4, Nadal erased a break point against him, and at 4-5, 30-30, two points from defeat, he came forward behind a stinging forehand crosscourt approach to force an errant backhand lob long from Federer. He held on. Next it was Federer’s turn to break free of danger. At 5-5, he held on from 15-40; at 6-6; he recovered from 0-30. Finally, Nadal broke the man who had won 40 consecutive Wimbledon matches at 7-7, and went on to win 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7 in four hours, 48 minutes., the longest ever final played on those hallowed lawns.
There are definite parallels between these two phenomenal matches. Both Borg and Nadal had every reason to be disconsolate as they found themselves unexpectedly in five set confrontations. Borg had been absolutely poised to win his fifth title in a row in four sets, and Nadal at 5-2 in the fourth set tie-breaker was so close to victory he could practically taste the champagne. In each case, these two estimable champions reestablished their authority and managed to wipe away the memory of their lost openings. Had either Nadal or Borg been victorious in four sets, neither one of those matches would be considered among the best of all time. Borg in his day and Nadal today shared the innate sense as champions of how to finish off opponents as quickly and decisively as possible.
And yet, in the 1980 and 2008 Wimbledon finals, the two champions faced extraordinary adversaries who would not surrender under dire circumstances. Both McEnroe and Federer imposed their wills and prolonged those contests. McEnroe had a flicker of hope at the start of the fifth set against Borg; Federer had his chances in the fifth set against Nadal. Borg and McEnroe were the two top players in the world, as is the case today with Federer and Nadal.
Another match that is near the top of my list of the very best men’s matches is the Ken Rosewall-Rod Laver WCT Finals showdown at Dallas in 1972, won by the masterful Rosewall 4-6, 6-0, 6-3, 6-7, 7-6. Had Rosewall closed out that one in the fourth set tie-break, it would have been a remarkable but not a stupendous match. But Rosewall’s inability to cut down the majestic Laver in the fourth led to a magnificent fifth, culminating with Rosewall escaping from 3-5 down in the final set tie-break to win four points in a row for the title.
Be that as it may, the 2008 Wimbledon was all about the final, about the enduring greatness of Federer and the rise of Nadal. Nadal was supremely disciplined and absolutely determined in this stirring battle that he fought off 12 of 13 break points and lost his serve only once in five long and arduous sets. That was a remarkable feat because Federer— especially early on— was returning with more depth off the backhand than I have seen from him in all of his recent meetings with the Spaniard. He was giving himself good possibilities, but Nadal kept taking them away.
Meanwhile, what television could not fully bring across was how difficult the conditions were on that afternoon. The wind was whipping around Centre Court and as day turned to night it became even cooler. And yet these two mighty competitors kept producing rally after scintillating rally of the highest caliber. Nadal was not able to flatten out his forehand quite as often as he had done earlier in the tournament, and perhaps that was a concession to the burdensome wind. As for Federer, perhaps he lost some of his precision off his majestic forehand because the wind was playing tricks with the ball.
Be that as it may, Nadal and Federer more than coped with those conditions, not to mention the growing darkness as the fifth set drew to a conclusion. They played to such a high standard that they made it look like as if it was an ideal day for tennis. They were that extraordinary. After the match, some critics questioned Federer for making 52 unforced errors compared to 27 for Nadal. But, the way I saw it, that was not an alarming number of unprovoked mistakes from the Swiss. There were 413 points played in this taxing contest. And Federer had no alternative but to assert his aggression at all times against Nadal, who always gives so little away.
Furthermore, in his “total approaches” to the net, Federer did a commendable job, winning 67 of 109 points. Of his 89 total winners, 43 were achieved at the net. I felt his tactics were pretty sound throughout the long struggle, even if his execution was not always up to the level he needed. Nadal was the better man in the longer exchanges, and he made no more than 8 unforced errors in any of the sets. Remarkably, he won 75% of his second serve points in the fourth set and 67% in the fifth.
Nadal moved his serve around intelligently. In the first set, he went to Federer’s backhand 83% of the time but by the fourth set that number had dropped to 43%. In the fifth, it was back up to 60%. For the entire match— and his number varied only marginally set by set— Federer directed his serve 51% of the time to Nadal’s backhand and sent 49% of his deliveries to the forehand. Make no mistake about it: these two men played the game almost unimaginably well.
Be that as it may, this match was not really about cold statistics. It was about two men throwing their hearts and souls into a match they each understood would have lasting implications, and showing sports fans across the world that the game of tennis at its best is better than any other sport. It was about Nadal moving beyond his clay court heroics to demonstrate his greatness by collecting a major on another surface, and thus becoming the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to win Roland Garros and Wimbledon in the same year. And it was about Federer nearly toppling the Spaniard from two sets down, but losing with the ultimate in style and grace.
Two stupendous players gave us one for the ages.
Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to TennisChannel.com
Steve Flink Archive | Email Steve