The Usurped Grass | Federer vs Nadal at Wimbledon 2008
Wimbledon’s Centre Court was considered to be the private garden of Roger Federer, after he dominated the Wimbledon Championships for five years in a row, from 2003 to 2007. The grass was his surface in the same way as clay courts were the preserve of Rafael Nadal. Until 2008, when the ambitious and persistent Majorcan interrupted Federer’s record, breaking an unspoken record and showing the world that he also could dominate each kind of playing surface.
A rivalry of surfaces
For many years the Federer versus Nadal face-off has been a matter of surfaces. There are two ways to divide the tennis season: from dusty clay courts, where Nadal’s muscular tennis ruled, to the temple of grass, where the ground’s characteristics smiled at Roger’s skills. The grass was considered a forbidden territory for Rafa: high speed and low rebounds weren’t the best mixture for his tennis. A theoric clash, in the full glare of the media, as in the Battle of Surfaces. But tennis was changing and Wimbledon’s grass seemed every year to be getting slower. It was evident, just by watching the earthen sections of the court, scuffed by feet: no more volleys and big serves, like in the 1980 or 1990’s‘. Just baseline hitting like a hard-court match. And Nadal was getting closer, year after year.
An announced shock
It was not a bolt from the blue. Before 2008, Wimbledon’s final was played by Federer and Nadal for two consecutive years. In 2006, Federer was in control of the match both in terms of the level of play and knowledge of the surface. But by 2007 something had already changed and it wasn’t only the lowering of rebounds on the grass. Nadal was adapting to the conditions, finding ways to be more aggressive. Moreover, in 2008 Nadal arrived on the eve of Wimbledon in the best mental condition: the victory at Queens, on grass, and the humiliating demonstration of power shown at Roland Garros’ final against Federer himself.
The 2008 Wimbledon Final: Federer vs Nadal
Wimbledon Final is the tennis event of the year. But in 2008 it was also the peak of a climax, a turning point in the Fedal rivalry. Nadal started the match by winning the first two sets, merciless. His serve was improved, and his shots were sharpened: less rotation, more penetration. Federer found himself gasping, always on a knife edge, perching in a castle of difficult shots. 6-4 6-4 6-7 6-6. He was left with only a tie-break to die or survive.
The Tie-Break and the rain
Just as in every match he played, the crowd was mostly on Roger’s side. But in this case, there was a psycho-drama going on. Unlike other sports, by watching tennis you can concentrate on the single psychological evolution of a player. When Nadal obtained two match points, it was clear what Roger’s condition was. A hunted animal, fiercely defending himself to the death. It was more than losing the match or the final: it was about losing his kingdom. With a surgical passing shot Federer stopped time, canceled the match point and then got himself to the fifth decisive set.
Light and Darkness: the Decider
At the beginning of the decider, the rain stopped the match. A coup de théâtre creates damage or benefit, depending on the situation. It’s difficult to say if, in this case, it ruined Federer’s positive vibe of survival he had just experienced. Anyway, the battle continued, game after game: there used to be no tie-break in the Grand Slam and after almost five hours of play, Nadal led by 8-7. Darkness descended on the Centre Court. The last ray of sun, a forehand buried in the net, and Nadal was the new champion. It was his first triumph at Wimbledon, and his first time as number one in the rankings, surpassing Federer himself. A turning point in the game of tennis. A final that digs deep down into the souls of two players, Federer in particular, leaving everything on the court and refusing to surrender.