I am still in awe of Sunday’s Wimbledon final. It’s unquestionably one of the greatest sporting events I’ve ever seen in my life.
From the very first point you could tell that things were going to be different than the French Open. Nadal was his same muscular self, swinging his racket like a battle axe, but on the other side of the net it was a completely different story. Gone was the awkward, flat-footed Federer from Paris. Here he seemed to flow across the Wimbledon grass, his feet barely touching the ground. It was like watching Fred Astaire. If Nadal’s racket was an axe, then Federer’s was a rapier, slicing the ball across the court with needle-like accuracy, occasionally piercing Nadal with a wicked 125+ MPH ace. This was the Federer we’ve come to expect, the greatest player ever to pick up a racket.
That crown may be on a different head before too much longer. Nadal combines near-Federer levels of skill with brutal power, which was the difference in the match. Even when Federer executed his game plan perfectly, Nadal was able to use his strength to control the flow of play. Several times during the match Federer sliced Nadal to ribbons with his forehand, only to watch Nadal rip one of his thrilling off-balance back-foot two-handed backhands across the court for a winner. There was simply nothing Federer could do about it.
The X’s and O’s don’t really tell the story, though. This match was a titanic battle of wills. I have never seen fiercer competitors fight so hard for so long. Outside of a wrestling match, when have two athletes ever imposed their will on each other so directly? Outside of a chess match, when have two contenders matched wits for so long?
I can’t recall a competition of any kind that was so close. Consider that while Nadal won the match, he only won five more points than Federer did (209 vs. 204) over the course of 288 minutes of tennis. And if Federer had converted just one of the six break points he missed in sets 1, 2, or 5, he would be champion.
For me, the fourth set tiebreak was the most thrilling part of the match. I will never forget the first point of the tiebreak. It’s the entire match boiled down to 20 seconds of play - the stifling, occasionally circus-like physical pressure from Nadal against the intelligence and resilience of Federer:
Nadal makes a good first serve, and Federer has to lunge just to put a racket on it. Nadal charges the net and shoves the weak return right back down Federer’s throat. Federer isn’t fazed, though. He hits an incredible backhand that seems to put Nadal on the defensive, but Nadal makes his own lunge to put the ball back on the baseline right at Federer’s feet. Federer has to backpedal to put a lob over Nadal’s head, and then The Moment: Nadal leaps in the air, his back to the net, sees the ball coming over his left shoulder, throws his racket over his head, and hits the ball behind him into the far service court, nearly parallel to the baseline. And then, as if that weren’t enough, somehow Federer recovers, runs all the way down to the other end, and rips a forehand winner down the line.
And that was just the first point of the tiebreak! There was another 14 minutes after that! Watch it for yourself and you’ll see what I mean:
It is exceedingly rare to see two elite players at the top of their games battle head-to-head like these two did. Most sports survive for decades on a just few minutes of such one-on-one competition; this Wimbledon final gave us nearly five consecutive hours of it. It may be years before we’re lucky enough to witness something like this again, in any sport. I’m so glad I got to see it.
Big thanks to Scott Dierdorf for letting us publish his article.