Rafa’s foot was asleep during the whole match, as it has been throughout his career. Roger had still not fully recovered, or so his backers later claimed, from mononucleosis, which he had contracted more than six months back. Yet the King of Clay and the Emperor of All Else put on a mesmerizing show for the ages. No one who watched that match live would ever forget the exhilaration during and the contentment that swept after the match got over. John McEnroe dubbed this rain-marred Wimbledon final of 2008, completed in near darkness, as the ’greatest match seen’ by him. But with all the background classical music and experts’ insights punctuating the journeys of the two greatest players since they were both toddlers, the documentary fails to fully recreate the magic that #Fedal had performed that day.
That raises a pertinent question- Is it even possible for a 100-minute long feature to capture the essence of a 300-minute long classic?
From what I recall of this match is the impression that it went on and on- long rallies, longer games, intermittent rains, colourful umbrellas, green covers, tension, anticipation, a veritable constellation of celebrities biting their nails. The Mahaut-Isner match would be played in 2010, the super-marathon Djokovic-Nadal AO final in 2012. We were not used to timeless tennis in 2008. The match was scheduled to begin at 1400 BST, but rain caused a 35-minutes delay. Rafa won the first two sets, and both players were on their serves at 4-5 in the third, when rains interrupted play. Action resumed after 80 minutes, with Roger promptly winning the third set in tiebreaker. The fourth set also went into the tiebreaker, in which at one point, Nadal led by 5-2.
Two points away from wrapping it up, Rafa served a double fault! Then a regulation backhand got stuck into the net. Roger came back on serve, and levelled. Then were played two strokes of geniuses- a Rafa forehand down-the-line to give him the championship point, followed by a rapier-like Roger backhand down-the-line to even matters. Rafa had two championship points, but Roger saved them, and miraculously won the set. There was a further 30-minute break after the fourth set.
It was almost dark by the time Nadal finally broke Federer in the fifth set. As he served for the match, there were many including Federer, who wished the play to be called off, and be completed the following day. But Roger could not bring up the issue, and later felt that this perhaps cost him the match. The 4 hour 48 minutes marathon dragged on till 2115 BST, that is, it took 7 hours and 15 minutes to reach a conclusion. This was the last Championships final to be delayed by rain. By 2009, a retractable roof had been constructed over the Centre Court.
The missed opportunities in the fourth set tiebreaker that allowed Roger to come back from the dead would have broken a lesser man, but Rafa is made of different steel. To be up by two sets against a player who has beaten you at this very place for two consecutive years, and then watching him mount a comeback must have been quite disconcerting. But Rafa had declared before the match-“ Federer could beat me in the final, but I was not going to lose… if he beats me, he beats me, but I’m not going to lose.” Roger came to within two points of snatching a victory from the jaws of defeat, but Rafa did not loosen his grip, kept the faith and ultimately prevailed.
Incredible though it may sound, Roger later admitted that he did not believe he could win that match. The Roland Garros mauling where he had managed to win just four games, and was even bageled in the third set, had completely shattered his self-confidence. That was Roger’s third straight French Open final loss to Nadal. This attitude of resignation showed in the first two sets where he was broken thrice. The one who had been winning for five years at a place must have realized that the run had got to end someday. The challenger, who had been denied by the champion in the previous two years, sensed his time. Roger had stolen a victory in 2007. It is impossible to keep defending your fortress. But Roland Garros had not fallen ! Everything about this match screamed history and context. Fans, experts, players, everyone was bogged down by the importance of this battle. But what transpired on SW19 that evening was beyond what Wagner, Kubrick or Homer could have envisaged.
But was it the greatest match ever? Was it greater than the Borg-McEnroe Wimbledon Final of 1980? Was Djokovic- Nadal at AO 2012 bigger? Maybe Fedal Final at AO 2017 was? What about the Djokovic-Federer drama at the SW-19 in 2019? All said, the context and the build-up to this match could not have been greater. Fe-dal had won 14 of the previous 16 Grand Slams, and including this result, won 9 out of the next 10! This was their third consecutive final at the Championship.
Nadal had been steadily strengthening his claim over the miniature Golden Pineapple inscribed over the Trophy. He had lost to the Swiss Master in four sets in 2006, but had stretched him to five sets in the previous year. Federer was still the best player in the world, but was Rafa still behind? He had not yet won any hard court Slam as yet. He had not yet been world number one. But he had completed the elusive ‘channel-slam’ and had slayed the Emperor in his own fort. Roger was in his cardigan before and after the final, Rafa chose sleeveless vests before, and sports jacket afterwards. This contrast in age and attire also reflected in their attitudes, as well as in their fan base and the public perception. There were ‘two greatest’ from that day on, both contesting against each other for supreme glory.
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