A change of guard at Wimbledon
The tennis world is agog at the return of its prodigal son, Rafael Nadal. He's back from a debilitating injury to reignite his rivalry with Roger Federer. Nadal is arguably the greatest clay court player ever, while Federer is one of the gods of the 'Grass Courts Pantheon' along with Pete Sampras, Rod Laver, and Bjorn Borg. Seeing Nadal head into yet another French Open semi-final, I recall the 2008 Wimbledon classic. The epic finale on the grandest of stages in tennis. When Steffi Graf defeated Martina Navratilova to win Wimbledon 1988, the BBC match commentator announced herald-like,
“The queen is dead, the long live the new queen.”
Who knew those words would be prophetic for what was about to take place two decades later.
On July 6th, 2008 the tennis world was in the midst of another revolution. Federer was about to face the first man who beat him in a Grand Slam final. If Federer won Wimbledon 2008, he would become the first man in this Open era to win six straight championships. William Renshaw of England had done that, back in the nineteenth century. More than a century on, history was being re-written and the king seemingly was firmly entrenched on his throne.
The year started differently. Novak Djokovic upset the apple cart by beating Federer at the Australian Open. Then started the clay season on which another man ruled supreme. For if Federer was the king of the grass courts, then the clay courts was where Rafael Nadal reigned supreme. He lorded on this surface, blasting away opponents with missile-like forehands and a ferocious base line attack. Roger Federer was his finalist for the French Open 2007 and the Spaniard had won it with ease. In the 2008 French Open, Federer promised more and the final result left the tennis world awestruck. Federer could win only four games and was swatted aside by Nadal, who won the last set 6-0.
There were whispers about which none would have even contemplated a year back. Could Nadal become only the third man, besides Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver, to win the French Open and Wimbledon in same year? He would also become the first Spaniard since 1966 to win Wimbledon. For four decades his people had griped that grass was for cows. Now it seemed one of their own was going to conquer the indomitable stronghold of Roger Federer.
Then Nadal went on to beat Djokovic at the Queen’s Club, and then iconic five time Wimbledon Champion Bjorn Borg dubbed Nadal as the favorite for this year’s Championship.
Federer would not have worried, for was it not that clay was Nadal’s forte just like grass was his? He expressed amazement at the naysayers who were predicting his fall. Dismissing the soothsayers as Ceaser had dismissed the portents of the Ides of March. He started the tournament in inimitable style, dispatching each opponent with aplomb. Nadal was thundering on like a force of nature, though his style could not have been more different. Federer was elegance and finesse personified, Nadal sheer force and brute strength.
Then the inevitable happened and the world held it’s breath for one of the most anticipated tennis matches ever.
Federer hadn’t dropped a set in his march to the final but he needed to match the doggedness, speed and accuracy of Nadal. He lost the first and in the second took a 4-1 lead only to see it dwindle away as Nadal reeled off five games. The crowd "ooh'd" and "aah'd" at the challenger’s game, while chanting ‘Roger’ and ‘Rafa’ equally as if unsure of whom to back. Unleashing 100 mph forehands and vicious top spin shots, Nadal proceeded to take control of the match. It seemed the pundits were right and he would prevail in straight sets but the champion was made of sterner stuff.
With two sets all it seemed the tide had turned, the momentum with Federer and it would be much like the Wimbledon 2007 final with him winning the fifth set. Nadal had broken down in the locker rooms afterwards; he could not and would not lose this year. Record books were testing the nerves of both the players and the spectators were stretched to a breaking point.
Drawing upon every ounce of inspiration the two battled on court and in the deepening darkness of the evening concluded what had become an instant classic. Nadal served for the championship point at 8-7 and the service return from Federer hit the net- the Spaniard sunk to the ground in ecstasy and a long emotional release. At four hours and 46 minutes, it was the longest Wimbledon final ever and it was the stocky challenger from Majorca, Spain who prevailed 9-7; astounding fans and detractors alike. Nadal was overcome with joy, his tears mingled with the rain falling on the grass.
There was a new champion. The king was dead, long live the new king.
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