As rule, you use superlatives at your peril. But you’ve found safe harbor in declaring the 2008 Wimbledon men’s final "the greatest tennis match ever played.” When Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal met on Centre Court that Sunday afternoon (and evening and night) in July, it marked the rare sporting event that lived up to the considerable hype. And then eclipsed it entirely.
Roger was 26, Rafa 22. And Federer-Nadal had already become a classic sports rivalry. This was a matchup heightened by clashing styles. Righty versus lefty. Classic technique versus ultramodern. No. 1 versus No. 2. Feline light versus bovine heavy. Middle European restraint and quiet meticulousness versus Iberian bravado and passion. Dignified power versus unapologetic, whoomphing brutality. Zeus versus Hercules.
The tennis salon’s comparison of Federer’s evolved beauty to Nadal’s Neanderthal drudge was—and remains—equal parts unfair and crass. But accepting the premise that they’re both artists, it's valid to suggest they’re from decidedly different schools. Federer is a delicate, brush-stroking impressionist and Nadal is a dogged, free-wheeling abstract expressionist.
Until this point, the two had an unspoken custody battle. Nadal ruled the clay—he had just beaten Federer, yet again, in the French Open final just four weeks prior. Federer ruled the grass—he had beaten Nadal in the 2006 and 2007 Wimbledon final. But by 2008, all bets were off.
Marrying power and accuracy, Nadal won the first two sets. Federer then, inevitably, awoke, and won the next two in tiebreaks, including arguably the greatest breaker ever in the fourth set. Adding to the cinematic quality: While the court may have appeared reasonably well-lit on television, this was a distortion—in reality, it might as well have been illuminated with toy flashlights. Despite the progressing dusk deep in the fifth set, Nadal still managed to pick up Federer’s serves, returning every offering deep in the court. It was 9:15 p.m. when Nadal held his fourth Championship Point.
Blocking out the chorus of “Come on, Rafa” from the crowd, he wiped his face, bounced the ball seven times, and hit a cautious first serve followed by a cautious backhand. The ball landed barely behind the service line, but took a tricky bounce, darting to the right. Nothing drastic, but it was enough to throw off Federer’s timing. And it was a reminder that for all the virtues that make up a seminal sporting event, there is also a component of luck. Always a component of luck.
Federer swung forcefully but awkwardly, his arms moving forward while his body weight jerked laterally. As ever, he stared at the ball as it left his strings. The shot was impeded by the top of the net and died on his own side of the court. And with that, the greatest match in tennis history had concluded. After four hours and 48 minutes of dazzling theater and dazzling tennis, Nadal had defeated Federer 6–4, 6–4, 6–7, 6–7, 9–7. Game, set, match.
While this match may have marked the apotheosis of their rivalry, it certainly did not mark the end of it. They have played each other 20 more times since and, between them, won 20 more Slams since that fateful day. Today, astonishingly, Nadal and Federer—ages 32 and 36 respectively—are ranked 1-2, and have taken turns winning each of the last six majors.
Commemorating both the 10-year-anniversary of the Greatest Match and the persistent excellence of the Federer/Nadal rivalry, BBC and Tennis Channel will air the feature-length documentary “Strokes of Genius” on the eve of this year’s Wimbledon Championships (July 1, 8 p.m. EST). Some outtakes from the film:
Nadal on the role of doubt:
“I always say that doubts are good, provided that they are not as strong or make you feel unconfident as to deprive you of competing at the highest level, because doubts keep you on the lookout at all times, regardless of the rival. That doubt about your own capacities pushed you to work the hardest you can. If you doubt that what you do isn’t enough to win, you always look for something else. I think that considering myself good enough and being doubtful has always pushed me to seek solutions to improve.”
Federer in the beginning of the match:
“The first two sets when I look back at that final, you know, it’s like I played them but maybe I was a bit—how do you say it—I'm not really sure if I was going to win the match, you know, because my problem was that I had lost in the French Open finals a month earlier against Rafa in a terrible way. He crushed me. He blew me off the court. So when I went into the Wimbledon finals I felt like, 'Oh my God this is going to be really difficult even though I had beaten him in two previous Wimbledon finals.' But I think it took me two sets to shake it off and I believe that that rain delay probably woke me up. I said, 'If we're going to go out of this match, at least you're going to go down swinging.'"
Nadal on losing the third and fourth sets—and standing a set from losing his third straight Wimbledon final to Federer.
“I could lose the final. But, I wasn’t going to fail. I’d be ready to compete till the end. Federer could win, but I wasn’t going to lose.”
Nadal on the essence of sport:
“Competition is about winning. Otherwise, let’s go training and we don’t compete. When I compete, I think that the intention and trying to find the way to win is what makes any sport fun. Everything has to be in a fair-play context, but we have to find a solution that shows the path to victory and my motivation is feeling that I’m doing my best to find solutions and achieve my goals.”
Federer on the role of self-sufficiency:
“As a tennis player it's constant problem-solving and trying for solutions and trying out things… But all the little decisions we have to take in every point, in every game and every match and every tournament. There are so many of them. And then you have the ones on a bigger scale, Who do you surround yourself with? Where do you train? What do you eat? How much do you sleep? How is your personal life?
“Everything comes into play. But one thing you can't is, you can't do it perfect every single time. So, you have to learn to play with problems and you have to learn how to play with pain. And I think that is what I like so much about the game of tennis because you learn so much from the sport. From winning. From losing. Trying to figure out and just being uncomfortable. Trying to fight through those difficult moments and situations.”
Federer on Nadal:
“We are so very different in how we approach things. Yet if you scratch underneath the surface you realize that we're probably quite similar in some shape or form, you know.”
Nadal on Federer:
“I do admire Federer’s style and those who don’t, either they don’t know about tennis, or even if you’re someone else’s fan, you need to be able to recognize excellence and Federer is excellent in every sense.”
Nadal on the rivalry:
“I play a different style of Federer’s, of course. Evidently, I play a very different game than Federer’s. Each point is important to me. To Federer, not all points are equally important, because he knows his serve is very hard to miss. So, he can be confident playing other points I can’t, he plays making more unintentional mistakes than me, because his style is more…I don’t know...I’d say aggressive, but he does take much more risks than me. …
I think that I play in a more intense manner than Federer and he plays in a more elegant and aggressive way, always supported by a drive and a serve that is hard to stop.”
Federer on the rivalry:
“I was number one in the world for the first time in 2004, I didn't want to have a rival. I just wanted to be the best and there was the rest basically. That's how I saw it… And then when Rafa came onto the scene, I guess at first I had to also appreciate the rival, you know. That he's going to be around and he's going to win his French Opens and win more in the future and he's going to be around. And maybe I have to adjust my game towards him. So, you have to accept that.
“This is where rivals become an important part of your career, you know. Especially him being a left-hander and me being a right-hander. He's got the double-handed backhand. Me, I've got the one-handed. He grunts. I don't. He's got the pirate pants. I don't. He's got the sleeveless shirt. I don't. So everything's different. He's very shy in personality off the court. On the court I may be more shy and off the court I may be more, you know, outgoing. Maybe more loud, who knows. And maybe that’s where he may be more shy. So, it's a very interesting contrast and I think that's why our rivalry was or still is so loved by so many people. Either you're team Rafa or you're team Roger, it’s hard for the fans to go on both sides. Today, I feel they can because they just feel like it’s so great that we’re still both at the game at this later stage of our career.”