Rafa Nadal’s 2008 Strokes of Genius Wimbledon triumph over Roger Federer is the best match of all time. But Roger’s turnaround 7-6, 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 triumph today was not all that shabby.
You could say that the duo, who were playing at Wimbledon for the first time since their drama in the dusk gave us a memorable sequel. Today, on an old tennis court, two old players gave us a sublime battle.
Then again, what else would you expect? Rafa vs. Roger is the gold standard of modern tennis. A rivalry that has everything – similarities, contrasts, common history, compelling ebbs and flows, and an extraordinary, undiluted love of tennis.
Perhaps, match-for-match, their rivalry may not have been as dramatic as Borg vs. McEnroe, who played only 22 times. Roger and Rafa had met just 39 times before, which is modest compared to the 80 times Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova played.
But, says Novak Djokovic, their battles have given us the most epic rivalry we have. The cool Swiss’ athletic grace brings to mind Muhammad Ali. The human dynamo from Mallorca is a fiercely determined brawler who punches away with left jabs in a manner that evokes Joe Frazier. The Rafa-Roger rivalry has its own righty vs. lefty dynamic. Federer is the man who spits at time, who defies reason and is the artist who can’t avoid beauty. Four years older than Rafa, Roger’s always had at least two more Slam wins than his Spanish rival. But there’s no one who has more athletic will than Rafa. Nadal owns the French Open – he has a dozen titles. Roger has won eight times at the All-England Club. Lunch with the queen and elegant white blazers – he’s a Wimbledon dream. Smooth and silky, everything always seems so right. He’s the toast of the Royal Box. Centre Court, they say, is Roger’s house.
But not so fast, counter Rafa lovers. Okay, long ago Spaniards scoffed at Wimbledon – grass is for cows. But, as much as anything, Rafa’s greatest skill is that he goes for everything. When he was a kid, his dad would say don’t sweat trying to reach balls you can’t possibly get to. But uncle Toni countered, “No way,” go for everything – every stroke, every point, every tournament.
A while ago, Simon Barnes contended, “The whiff of sporting mortality has done something to Nadal. He has learned…how fraught, fragile, and brief is a career in sport … There’s a hymn we used to sing at school that encouraged us, perhaps rashly, to live each day as if our last. All this year Nadal has played each point as if it were his last.”
Just after Rafa won the French Open five weeks ago, his Uncle Toni turned to me and said, “Rafa will win Wimbledon.” I was stunned. “Kind of brash,” I foolishly thought. But we’re talking Nadal here, who has a 24-15 record over Roger, and is 10-3 in Slams. And he’s won two Wimbledons. But Rafa hasn’t prevailed here in nine years. And, everyone knows, with his reared-on-clay strokes, grass is not his fave.
Barnes once reflected, “As I watched Rafael…I was reminded of the time I rode a camel. I am used to riding horses. It was not that I couldn’t ride the camel, it was just that it felt so peculiar. I wanted the camel to like me, but I didn’t feel in a position to trust it. The motion of the animal felt different. It didn’t feel right. And I suppose Nadal did OK, but it didn’t feel right for him either. The stuff he was playing on was green and not red; it was fast and not slow; it was living and not dead. Nadal clearly wanted to make friends with it, but he never felt in a position to trust it.”
Still, many trusted the Spaniard would prevail today. He’s upped his game – his serve is much better, his volleys impress. He was on fire. Just ask Nick Kyrgios or Sam Querrey. But if there is anyone who can put out flames at Wimbledon, it’s Fireman Federer. He’s doused the hopes of wannabes from Andy Roddick to Andy Murray.
They say life begins at 40. And the 40th meeting between Roger and Rafa began at 4:40 PM. As both players promptly dominated on serve, Rafa and Roger raced to a first-set tiebreak. Thereafter they traded two mini-breaks, but Roger stepped up and showed us his intent and his sublime skills. He moved forward, took balls early, played with brave aggression, served well and lifted his game. He was clear. In its way, the tiebreak felt like a kind of SABR – A Sneak Attack by Roger. He won four points to collect a high-octane tiebreaker, 7-3.
But guess what – perfect Roger isn’t perfect. The Swiss suddenly descended from the lofty perch he’d reached. His forehand wavered. Nadal was on the prowl. He put Roger on his back feet and scored the first break of the match. There were Swiss shanks, but without redemption. The magnificent Federerian strikes we saw in the first set suddenly vanished. Last year Roger had faltered in the quarterfinals. This year he was dismissed by Rafa in the French semis. Would we see another Fed fade? Had Rafa’s force gotten to the 37-year-old? As shadows crept onto the court, one wondered whether doubts were coming into Roger’s mind. He dropped the second set 6-1 – a curious loss.
Now, could the mighty Roger re-group?
Yes! Roger again flashed his flowing, powerful brilliance. Down-the-line backhands, adept cross-court forehands, uncanny instincts, fine scrambles, a clever lob, a happy let chord. Luck smiled on him. He regained his focus, he again unleashed his ferocity. Does this guy’s mountain villa have a fountain of youth?
The points offered an almost excruciating physicality. The duo pushed each other from corner to corner. They probed – and went for winners. On one point, Roger ran 95 yards. Nadal tried to impose his force, but Roger resisted. He held the baseline. His defense-to-offense impressed. Surprisingly, he won most of the long points and he saved many a breakpoint.
All the while a Serbian named Nole put up his feet and smiled, “Play on, lads!” After 2:06 Roger captured the third set. Taking advantage of Nadal’s suspect return of serve and the Spaniard’s failure to deliver first serves, Federer was now in ascendence. Deep into his comfort zone, his decision making was superb. His forehand punished.
Tony Godsick’s young client Coco Gauff was the darling of the first week. His old client was now the star of the second. Time and again the GOAT gored the bull. Here was a tale of two cities. In Paris, amidst gales, Roger suffered on clay. Today, in the sun, he soared on a London lawn.
Yes, the final game of the match was a high-tension adventure in gamesmanship. Rafa does not go down easy. Roger needed five match points to score his 7-6(3), 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 to propel him to his 12th Wimbledon final, where he’ll face the No. 1 seed and defending champion, Djokovic.
Skeptics suggested Roger would be drained after his 3:03 battle. He’s the oldest player to make the finals since Ken Rosewall in 1974. And, for the first time, Roger will have to play Nadal and Djokovic in the same Slam. Plus, those two 37-year-olds, he and Serena (who have five kids and 43 Slams between them), couldn’t possibly lock up Wimbledon titles like they did back in 2003, when Apple first launched iTunes.
Then again, these two have sung some pretty incredible tunes. After all, they’re two old GOATS who seem to have a knack for climbing to incredible heights.
Also Reporting – Lucia Hoffman