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The Spin Master

July 14, 2008
July 14, 2008

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July 14, 2008

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The Spin Master

Imposing his game on grass, Rafael Nadal ripped powerful topspin and sidespin shots to dethrone Roger Federer in a Wimbledon marathon that was the greatest match of all time

HISTORY HELD itsbreath. This was supposed to be the year that the debate ended and RogerFederer took his place as the greatest tennis player ever. The Mighty Fedneeded simply to sustain his remarkable trajectory and he'd eclipse PeteSampras's record of 14 Grand Slam singles titles. He was on pace to finish hisfifth consecutive year with the No. 1 ranking and become the first player since1888 to win Wimbledon for the sixth straight time. ¶ And so in the last fewmoments of daylight on Sunday, there was a Centre Court coronation. Only itwasn't for the Swiss stylist; it was for a swashbuckling Spaniard. In aspellbinding men's final that will stand as the benchmark against which allfuture 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 everplayed.

This is an article from the July 14, 2008 issue

It also doubled asa four-hour, 48minute infomercial for everything that is right about tennis—afestive display of grace, strength, speed, shotmaking and sportsmanship thatcrackled with electricity. If this Wimbledon final doesn't improve the sport'srelevance quotient, nothing will. While Nadal collapsed onto the court afterwinning his fourth match point, it was the House of Federer that was brought toits knees after a glorious five-year run. "There is a new kingtonight," said a breathless BBC announcer. "We may have to rethinktennis history."

In becoming thefirst player since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to pull off the spring-summerdouble—winning on the clay of the French Open and the lawns of Wimbledon—Nadaldefied conventional tennis wisdom. It's long been thought that no playerrelying 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 thanNadal does; a recent study commissioned by the International Tennis Federationfound that while the ball rotates 2,500 times per minute on the average pro'sshot, it rotates twice as much on Nadal's.

Yet in winningWimbledon the 22-year-old Nadal confirmed what some U.S. television viewersalready suspected: Simply calling something a "no spin zone" (in thiscase, a grass court) doesn't necessarily make it so. It turns out that Nadal'sunique 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 sosharply upon landing that they should have required turn signals. "All thetime," complained Nadal's dumbfounded first-round opponent, Andreas Beck."I was thinking, What the hell's he doing?"

In thequarterfinals Nadal thumped Andy Murray, the Great British Hope, in straightsets. (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. "WithFederer it looks like effortless power. [Nadal] puts a lot of swing on it, andwhen 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 fourthstraight French Open last month, crushing Federer in straight sets in thefinal, he was preparing for Wimbledon. He practiced volleying and serving wideand planting himself on the baseline, typical backcourt positioning for grass."Everyone thinks because he's Spanish, it's clay, clay, clay," saysToni. "But for Rafa, Wimbledon ... has always meant the most."

Nadal sure maskedthe 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. Nadalkicked a soccer ball around on the practice courts, slapped five with passersbyas he walked around town and spent part of his downtime writing a blog for TheTimes 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 withmushrooms, 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 thisinsouciance 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 mostgripping rivalry in sports, and it's largely because of what each playerrepresents. No. 1 versus No. 2. Righty versus lefty. Smooth, silent graceversus rugged, oomphing tenacity. White-collar tennis versus working-classtennis. (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 inthe locker room to chat. Asked last week to name his favorite sportsman, Nadallisted Spain's soccer team, Tiger Woods and ... Federer.

The criticaldifference between the two: While Nadal is clearly galvanized by the concept ofa rivalry, Federer can appear annoyed by the presence of such a bold andpugnacious 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 abackdrop, what made Sunday's epic all the more memorable was the abundantevidence of guts on both sides of the net. Confounding Federer with his spinsand angles, Nadal seized the first two sets. Call it territorial instincts, butFederer would not go gently. He dialed in his serve and, after a 90-minute raindelay in the third set, won a riveting tiebreaker. A little more than an hourlater Nadal held two match points in the fourth-set tiebreaker. Federersummoned some of his best shotmaking of the day—champions do this—and, puttingto rest any doubts about his mettle, pushed the match to a decisive fifthset.

Squandering matchpoints in a Wimbledon final would be enough to torture even the most mentallysound player. But Nadal's psyche is as rock-hard as his physique. As if puttingon a set of noise-canceling headphones, he blocked out the distraction and wentback to work. There was a second, 24-minute rain delay in the fifth set, and bythe time Nadal broke Federer at 7--7 it was after 9 p.m. and the balls werebarely visible. "I couldn't see nothing," said Nadal. Still, he coollyserved out the match. "You know how people say, 'It feels like adream?'" Nadal later told the Spanish media in his native tongue."Winning my first Wimbledon? Beating Federer, the greatest player of alltime? A match like this? How could it not feel like a dream?"

IF THE men's drawwas characterized by regime change, the women's draw featured the reassertionof familiar powers. Maybe the tennis establishment will finally realize thistruth: The Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, have it all figured out. They'reright; everyone else is wrong. From skipping junior tennis to keeping theirparents as coaches, they've defied tradition at every turn. For most of theirremarkable careers, the sisters have drawn criticism for their outsideinterests, which diverted their attention from tennis. As the rest of the womenwere maniacally whacking balls and following the WTA's global caravan, Venusand Serena resembled temp employees, clocking in only when they felt like it.Despite pressure from the tour and its sponsors to play more events, thesisters restricted their schedules. If a fashion project or an acting role or aboyfriend captured their interest, well, Madrid could wait.

Yet most of thenotable workaholics of recent years—Martina Hingis, Kim Clijsters, JustineHenin—have taken early retirement, driven out by physical and emotionalexhaustion. Venus and Serena, now 28 and 26, respectively, continue to gostrong. The moderation and light scheduling that so many railed against are thevery reasons for their longevity.

Over the fortnightthe sisters cut their usual swath of destruction. Without dropping a set, eachwon her first six matches, ensuring that the Wimbledon title would be in thefamily for the seventh time since 2000. They blasted groundstrokes with so muchpace that the shots should have come with cartoon bubbles: Pow! Bam! Whap! Bothwomen covered the court brilliantly, particularly Venus, always the moregraceful of the two. Both hit unanswerable serves, particularly Serena, whoclubbed 57 aces in all. (By comparison, Nadal hit 46.) Both sisters alsoreturned serve well, intimidating their opponents by standing well inside thebaseline.

Most important,both displayed typically unshakable confidence. Want to know why Venus hasresisted the voguish tennis trend of pumping her fist after every winning shot?"I expect to win the point," she says. "It's not like if I win thepoint it's something I wasn't expecting." When did Serena realize that sheand her sister could become the best two players in the world? "I justalways assumed we would be the best," she says flatly.

Off-court theyremain on a higher plane, unwilling to be drawn into tournament controversiesor tour politics. In the locker room and players' lounge they inhabit their ownorbit, perfectly courteous but only vaguely aware of their colleagues.

Hi, you're ZhengJie from China? Great job reaching the semifinals!

You look familiarfrom the cafeteria. Remind me again: You're in marketing?

They played lastSaturday's final, Williams-Williams XVI, in windy, tricky conditions. Venusplayed with more composure and prevailed 7--5, 6--4 to win her fifth Wimbledonsingles crown and seventh Grand Slam singles trophy, putting her only onebehind Little Sis. Unlike in most of their head-to-head matches, the shotmakingand court coverage were often brilliant. As always, though, the intrafamilyencounter was awkward and uncomfortable to watch. Unsure for whom to cheer, thecrowd replicated the vibe (and decibel level) of teatime.

Really, though,how could anyone expect anything else? Exceptionally close, even for sisters,Venus and Serena shared an apartment during the tournament. They played doublestogether, laughing and kidding each other en route to winning the title for thethird time. For two weeks they talked about men and ate Chinese food andwatched movies together. "[Throughout the year] we don't get to see eachother as much as we would like," says Serena. "If one of us is playingin another place or has a commitment with one of our sponsors, it's achallenge."

For theWilliamses, then, this Wimbledon had the air of a girls' getaway toEngland—except that, oh, yeah, at the end they had to stand on opposite sidesof the net and play a Grand Slam final before a global audience. A "bigsister first and a tennis player second," Venus tempered her glee afterwinning match point, raising her arms but then extending them to hug Serena atthe net. "One of us has to win and one of us has to lose," Venus says."Of course the celebration isn't as exciting."

TIED TO Federer,if not by blood then by the bonds of a rivalry, Nadal was similarly dignifiedin victory. The first Spaniard to win Wimbledon in 42 years fell flat on hisback but popped up quickly to embrace his opponent, who may have revealed asmuch of himself in defeat as he ever did in victory. Nadal then sought outUncle Toni and the rest of his entourage before carrying a Spanish flag intothe 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 certainthat Nadal will take over the top ranking by year's end.

As for Federer,he'll try to salvage this season of uncharacteristic mortality first at theBeijing Olympics and then at the U.S. Open, his last chance to win a Grand Slamtitle in 2008. He'll be chasing Nadal now. And he'll keep pursuing history,too. Moral victories might be hard to come by at this point in his career, butif he can replicate the courage he showed in the greatest match ever played, heought to be just fine.

"Winning my first Wimbledon? Beating Federer? Amatch like this?" Nadal said. "How could it not FEEL LIKE ADREAM?"
Maybe the tennis establishment will realize that Venusand Serena have it all figured out. THEY'RE RIGHT; everyone else is wrong.
For two weeks they TALKED AND WATCHED MOVIES together."We don't see each other as much as we would like," says Serena.

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BREAKING NEWS, REAL-TIME SCORES AND DAILY ANALYSIS.

SERVICE GAME
Check out an exclusive SI photo gallery of Nadal's win over Federer, plus JonWertheim's 50 parting shots from Wimbledon.

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PHOTOPhotograph by Simon BrutyFLOAT LIKE A BUTTERFLY Nadal's athleticism kept Federer (above) on the run in a final nearly halted by darkness.PHOTOBOB MARTIN[See caption above]PHOTOBOB MARTINRETURN MEETING Spurred by the rivalry, Nadal has beaten Federer in the last two Grand Slam finals. Next up: the U.S. Open.PHOTOBOB MARTIN[See caption above]PHOTOBOB MARTINALL WILLIAMS Before they won the doubles title, Venus beat Serena (bottom) for her fifth Wimbledon singles crown.PHOTOSIMON BRUTY[See caption above]PHOTOJULIAN FINNEY/GETTY IMAGESGOOD SPORTS There were no hard feelings between friends Federer and Nadal, or the Williams sisters.PHOTOSIMON BRUTY[See caption above]