They are perfect opposites. One, a lithe, Swiss master with a racket that made such sweet music, Mozart would have been embarrassed. The other, a fiery, fierce matador from Spain, with his bulging arms exposed as a sign of his physicality. One, a righty who floated around the court. The other, a lefty who was just as fast, but more forceful in his movements. One, an all court player who had already conquered each surface three times over except for clay. The other, a player who had not conquered any surface other than clay, which he had done four times over. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were not similar in any way, except for the fact that they were brilliant at tennis. They also had the similarity of being able to bring out the best in each other, to play off each other like two dueling musicians. They were perfect opposites, but they were perfect for each other, never more than on the day of July 6, 2008. That was the day that tennis history was written, because tennis history was changed.
Entering the final, Roger Federer had yet to lose a single set. The same could not be set for Rafael Nadal. The specter of Nadal's ridiculous 6-1 6-3 6-0 win in the French Open Final just four weeks earlier hung over the match, but that was on clay. Clay was perfectly suited for Nadal's game, and the high bounce that Nadal could create was perfectly ill-suited for Federer's. This was on grass, and grass was Federer's surface. Five straight years Federer had conquered the lawns of the All-England Club, usually without much serious competition. Each of the past two years even saw him beat Nadal in the Wimbledon Final. Federer had the history on his side, but Nadal had the recent history on his. As the match was about to start, and the rain finally ended after two hours, history was ready to be made.
History held its breath. This was supposed to be the year that the debate ended and Roger Federer took his place as the greatest tennis player ever. The Mighty Fed needed simply to sustain his remarkable trajectory and he'd eclipse Pete Sampras's record of 14 Grand Slam singles titles. He was on pace to finish his fifth consecutive year with the No. 1 ranking and become the first player since 1888 to win Wimlbedon for the sixth straight time. And so in the last few moments of daylight on Sunday, there was a Centre Court coronation. Only it wasn't for the Swiss stylist; it was for a swashbuckling Spaniard. In a spellbinding men's final that will stand as the benchmark against which all future tennis matches will be measured, Rafael Nadal dethroned Federer 6--4, 6--4, 6--7, 6--7, 9--7. Let's be unequivocal: This was the greatest match ever played.
It also doubled as a four-hour, 48minute infomercial for everything that is right about tennis—a festive display of grace, strength, speed, shotmaking and sportsmanship that crackled with electricity. If this Wimbledon final doesn't improve the sport's relevance quotient, nothing will. While Nadal collapsed onto the court after winning his fourth match point, it was the House of Federer that was brought to its knees after a glorious five-year run. "There is a new king tonight," said a breathless BBC announcer. "We may have to rethink tennis history."
In becoming the first player since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to pull off the spring-summer double—winning on the clay of the French Open and the lawns of Wimbledon—Nadal defied conventional tennis wisdom. It's long been thought that no player relying on high-bouncing topspin and cutting sidespin can thrive at Wimbledon. And it's hard to recall a player ever applying more action to his shots than Nadal does; a recent study commissioned by the International Tennis Federation found that while the ball rotates 2,500 times per minute on the average pro's shot, it rotates twice as much on Nadal's.
Yet in winning Wimbledon the 22-year-old Nadal confirmed what some U.S. television viewers already suspected: Simply calling something a "no spin zone" (in this case, a grass court) doesn't necessarily make it so. It turns out that Nadal's unique combination of spin and brutal power is ideal for Wimbledon's surface, especially when it plays as slowly as it did this year. His shots kicked so sharply upon landing that they should have required turn signals. "All the time," complained Nadal's dumbfounded first-round opponent, Andreas Beck. "I was thinking, What the hell's he doing?"
In the quarterfinals Nadal thumped Andy Murray, the Great British Hope, in straight sets. (Next day's headline in London's Daily Star: ANDY'S KICKED IN THE NADS.) A half hour after the match Murray was still dazed by Nadal's cyclonic strokes. "He just swings his arm so hard at the ball," says Murray. "With Federer it looks like effortless power. [Nadal] puts a lot of swing on it, and when it hits the court it bounces hard in the other direction!"
Toni Nadal, Rafael's uncle and coach, claims that even as Rafa was winning his fourth straight French Open last month, crushing Federer in straight sets in the final, he was preparing for Wimbledon. He practiced volleying and serving wide and planting himself on the baseline, typical backcourt positioning for grass. "Everyone thinks because he's Spanish, it's clay, clay, clay," says Toni. "But for Rafa, Wimbledon ... has always meant the most."
Nadal sure masked the intensity of his ambitions, though. His rental house in Wimbledon Village, an easy walk from the courts, was Fiesta Central during the tournament, particularly early on when Spain's soccer team was winning Euro 2008. Nadal kicked a soccer ball around on the practice courts, slapped five with passersby as he walked around town and spent part of his downtime writing a blog for The Times of London. Sample entry: "I went out to Wimbledon to do some grocery (?). Is that the word for shopping food? I guess so. I cooked ... pasta with mushrooms, gambas, some onion at the beginning and these crab sticks. Not bad, believe me. Anyway I am going to bed now and finish the Godfather."
If this insouciance was a sharp departure from Federer's buttoned-down approach, well, add it to the list of contrasts between the two. Federer-Nadal is the most gripping rivalry in sports, and it's largely because of what each player represents. No. 1 versus No. 2. Righty versus lefty. Smooth, silent grace versus rugged, oomphing tenacity. White-collar tennis versus working-class tennis. (Fittingly, Federer endorses Mercedes; Nadal has a contract with Kia.) Plus, the two players show not merely respect but also fondness for each other. Federer said that even as their final showdown loomed, he sought out Nadal in the locker room to chat. Asked last week to name his favorite sportsman, Nadal listed Spain's soccer team, Tiger Woods and ... Federer.
The critical difference between the two: While Nadal is clearly galvanized by the concept of a rivalry, Federer can appear annoyed by the presence of such a bold and pugnacious challenger. In past matches between them Federer played tentatively, unnerved by Nadal's aggression. Federer admits that, in the past, he had a "Nadal complex."
With that as a backdrop, what made Sunday's epic all the more memorable was the abundant evidence of guts on both sides of the net. Confounding Federer with his spins and angles, Nadal seized the first two sets. Call it territorial instincts, but Federer would not go gently. He dialed in his serve and, after a 90-minute rain delay in the third set, won a riveting tiebreaker. A little more than an hour later Nadal held two match points in the fourth-set tiebreaker. Federer summoned some of his best shotmaking of the day—champions do this—and, putting to rest any doubts about his mettle, pushed the match to a decisive fifth set.
Squandering match points in a Wimbledon final would be enough to torture even the most mentally sound player. But Nadal's psyche is as rock-hard as his physique. As if putting on a set of noise-canceling headphones, he blocked out the distraction and went back to work. There was a second, 24-minute rain delay in the fifth set, and by the time Nadal broke Federer at 7--7 it was after 9 p.m. and the balls were barely visible. "I couldn't see nothing," said Nadal. Still, he coolly served out the match. "You know how people say, 'It feels like a dream?'" Nadal later told the Spanish media in his native tongue. "Winning my first Wimbledon? Beating Federer, the greatest player of all time? A match like this? How could it not feel like a dream?"
Tied to Federer, if not by blood then by the bonds of a rivalry, Nadal was similarly dignified in victory. The first Spaniard to win Wimbledon in 42 years fell flat on his back but popped up quickly to embrace his opponent, who may have revealed as much of himself in defeat as he ever did in victory. Nadal then sought out Uncle Toni and the rest of his entourage before carrying a Spanish flag into the Royal Box to greet his country's Crown Prince Felipe and Princess Letizia. If his first Wimbledon title weren't momentous enough, it's virtually certain that Nadal will take over the top ranking by year's end.
Rafael Nadal is now the king of men's tennis, but at that moment in 2008 tennis was still Roger's kingdom. Roger was the emperor, conquering land after land, on his way to a now record 16 major titles. Rafael Nadal today has just 9, but is still only 24, and has shown the ability to, like Federer, win on every surface. Time will tell if Rafael Nadal can catch Roger. However, time will also tell the story of this match. The day that the two best tennis players of their generation hit and hit and hit. And just when you thought it was over, and Rafael Nadal hit that ridiculous winner to get match point, they hit on.