Now history beckoned once more. The two best players in the worldand arguably the two greatest in historywere colliding in their third final in a row on the Wimbledon grass after already contesting three Roland Garros finals in succession. Supremacy of that kind from two players in back to back majors over a three year stretch was unprecedented, and is unlikely ever to be replicated. It was a large credit for Federer to make his way into all of those finals in Paris; likewise, Nadals string of finals at Wimbledon was a testament to his adaptability. All of their previous finals at majors had been memorable, particularly the 2007 Wimbledon title round encounter. But this one would stand in a class by itself as the greatest battle they ever waged against each other.
They met in 2008 on a day filled with rain showers, causing a number of delays. The wind was often burdensome. But both players produced a masterpiece despite all of the obstacles. Nadal broke Federer in the third game of the opening set, and made that count. He took the set 6-4, and then rallied from 1-4 down in the second to sweep five games in a row for a two sets to love lead.
At 3-3 in the third, Federer was down 0-40. The Swiss seemed to be in a desperate plight. Yet he served his way out of that corner with serenity and panache. After Federer held for 5-4 in the third set, rain caused a long delay of about 80 minutes. When they returned, the set went to a tie-break, and Federers serving there was astounding. He released four aces in that stirring sequenceincluding a crucial one on set pointand took the tie-break 7-5.
The fourth set was settled in another tie-break. Nadal had two match points. But Federer saved the first with an unstoppable first serve, and erased the second on Nadals serve. The Spaniard approached off a short return from Federer, but the Nadal crosscourt forehand coming in shot lacked severity. Federer stayed home, releasing a spectacular backhand passing shot winner down the line. He climbed back sternly to win that tie-break. As was the case in the Borg-McEnroe final 28 years earlier, the fourth set tie-break provided the highest drama and some of the most scintillating tennis in the match. At 2-2 in the fifth set, rain fell again. No one knew when the players resumed play if enough light would remain in the sky to allow them to complete this gem of a tennis match.
Nadal was serving from behind in the fifth set, putting him at a distinct disadvantage. At 3-4, the Spaniard was down break point. Had Federer converted, the Swiss would have been serving for the match. But Nadals body serve elicited a short return, and the Spaniard stepped in to rifle a forehand into the clear. He held on for 4-4. At 4-5, Nadal faced another crisis at 30-30, when he was two points from losing the match before serving his way to equality at 5-5 with unblinking authority.
Soon Nadal found the opening he needed. He broke Federer at 7-7 with some solid play. The sky was ominously dark. The next game would be the last one of the dayno matter what happened. Federer saved a third match point with a majestic backhand return winner. But a determined Nadal took the next two points to win 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7 in the fading light.
In my view, there has been no better tennis match played in the history of the game.