In 2006, Roger Federer was a three-time defending Wimbledon champion who’d just broken Bjorn Borg’s all-time record of 41-consecutive grass-court wins. By contrast, Rafael Nadal was a clay-court maestro who’d just won his second French Open, defeating Federer in the final to deny the tennis great the one major that eluded him. But Nadal’s tennis magic was pretty much dependent on some crushed brick under his feet. On the other surfaces Nadal was merely very good. He’d won some Masters 1000s on hard courts but had only once made it past the third round at a major outside Roland Garros (and even that was only a fourth-round appearance at the ’05 Australian Open).
While future prowess on those surfaces seemed inevitable, there was little reason to think that 2006 was the year Nadal would start it. He was 5-4 lifetime on grass and 3-2 at Wimbledon. And when he lost the first two sets in a second-round match against qualifier Robert Kendrick, it seemed that his ascension would have to wait. But he came back, then defeated Andre Agassi in the next round (it would be Agassi’s last match at the All England Club) and made it to the final without facing a seed better than No. 18. He played Federer tough in that final, rebounding after losing the first set in 25 minutes, but more than anything it was a warning shot that there would be more to come.
In 2007, after losing another French Open final to Nadal, Federer was trying to tie Borg’s record of five-straight Wimbledon titles. Once again, Nadal stood in his way. This time, for perhaps the first time since he went on the most dominant Grand Slam run the sport has ever seen, Federer looked frustrated by his inability to control an opponent. He was scared, almost. It had all come so easy and suddenly this blasting, topspinning kid was upending it all.
It’s a reaction Federer would have countless times over the next decade, stymied by the Nadal game that was a perfect counter to his own. The Fed won in five tight sets but a few points here and there and Nadal could have stolen the match. Rafa sobbed in the locker room but there was the sense that next time – and there would be a next time – could easily bring a different result.
Nadal still hadn’t won a major outside of France when he walked onto Centre Court for the 2008 Wimbledon final. Federer hadn’t lost a match at the tournament since 2002 and was 12-0 in Grand Slam finals played on hard or grass courts. Seven hours later, neither of those things would be true and tennis history would be altered forever.
The 2008 Wimbledon final is the greatest match in the history of the sport, both for the play, the drama, the conditions and the overarching meaning, in which the king of tennis was toppled, replaced by a younger, fitter and stronger version from Mallorca. There have been books written on this match so a half-paragraph won’t suffice but after three rain delays, three saved match points by Federer, an inability by Federer to convert break points, Nadal converting his, a blown 5-2 lead by Nadal in what could have been a decisive fourth set tiebreak and a 9-7 fifth set played in the gloaming, Rafael Nadal had finally gotten the best of Roger Federer. “He’s still the best,” Nadal would say of Federer, characteristically humble after the match. It was the only thing Nadal had gotten wrong all day.