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Steve Flink: Nadal and Federer Scale the Heights

7/6/2008 7:19:00 PM

by Steve Flink

WIMBLEDON - I have had the good fortune to be here for 41 of the last 44 Wimbledons. I have seen some exhilarating and high quality final round showdowns, some stirring battles between all time greats, some stupendous displays of shot making and character across the years. But the final I just watched between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer ranks right up there with the best I have ever seen here, or at any of the majors for that matter. I place it alongside the Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe classic final of 1980 at the top of my list of the greatest tennis matches of all time. It was an astonishing skirmish between the two best players in the world, and both men competed so ferociously and honorably that the fans could not have asked for more.

For four hours and 48 minutes, through two rain delays and numerous shifts in momentum, across a long afternoon up to the edge of darkness, the game's two best players pushed each other to the hilt. Nadal was admirable on the big points over the first two sets, leaving Federer frustrated time and again. In the first set, he got the early break for 2-1, fought off a break point to reach 3-1, and then held on at 5-4 under extreme duress. Federer saved two set points and reached break point twice before Nadal closed out the set 6-4 on three consecutive errant backhands from the Swiss maestro.

In the second set, Federer surged to 4-1, and was seemingly ready to strike back to one set all. But an obstinate and opportunistic Nadal collected five games in a row to gain a two set to love lead. Nadal was simply unyielding in that stretch, and once more Federer pushed him inordinately hard when Nadal was serving out the set. At 5-4, on his first set point, Federer released a vicious, biting sliced backhand crosscourt to lure Nadal into a mistake. Federer got to break point but Nadal took the net away from him and provoked a backhand error from the No. 1 seed, and then garnered two points in a row to seal that set.

On they went into the third set, and Nadal continued his big point mastery. He fought off two break points at 1-2, saved four more break points at 2-3, and then had a big chance to break the match open when he reached 0-40 on Federer's serve at 3-3. A service break there might have allowed Nadal to record a straight set triumph, but Federer held on gamely. Nadal netted a second serve return off the forehand at 30-40, but Federer was bold and confident in holding in that precarious corner.

With Nadal ahead 6-4, 6-4, 4-5, rain halted play for over an hour. Both players held to set up a tie-break, and it was in that sequence that Federer produced some of his most scintillating tennis of the match. He released his fourth ace of the tie-break to win it seven points to five. Nadal had lost only one point on serve, but Federer did not drop any on his delivery. And yet, Nadal was not distressed. He served first in the fourth set, and settled into a comfortable holding pattern.

In six service games, he allowed Federer only six points. But he could not find a way to finish off the thoroughly composed Federer. The top seed served at 4-5, 0-30, but Nadal could not break him as Federer took command off the forehand and made Nadal pay a substantial price for excess caution on his second serve returns. Nevertheless, Nadal seemed to have the match in his grasp in the fourth set tie-break. He was serving with a 5-2 lead. All he needed was two solid points at that moment, and he would have saved himself all kinds of anxiety.

But here Nadal nearly choked his opportunity away. At 5-2, he double faulted off the net-cord. At 5-3, he invited trouble by allowing Federer a chance to take charge off the forehand again. So Federer was back to 4-5 instead of being triple or even quadruple match point down. Federer served his way to a set point of his own, but Nadal then got to match point for the first time. Federer erased it quickly with a clutch service winner wide to Nadal's forehand. Moments later, Nadal lunged to his left and unleashed an astounding forehand passing shot winner down the line.

Now Nadal was at match point for the second time, with this one on his own serve. He sent a first serve to Federer's backhand, got the short return he wanted, and approached deep to the backhand. But this was a golden moment for the five time defending champion. He rolled a gorgeous backhand passing shot down the line for a winner. Two points later, he had audaciously taken the set, and seemingly had given Nadal good reason to be discouraged. Surely, even the indefatigable Nadal would buckle now after his missed opportunities.

And then the players were forced off court by the second rain delay with Federer serving at 2-2, deuce in the fifth set. It seemed then that it would be only a matter of time before Federer applied just enough pressure to get a timely service break that would allow him to wrap up an exhilarating victory. But this is where Nadal reminded us why he is one of the most steadfast competitors the game has ever seen. He went back to work and dealt beautifully with an arduous situation.

Nadal was, after all, serving from behind in the final set, a considerable burden given the way Federer had been serving. Nadal was at a distinct disadvantage. But not once did he waver; not for an instant did he give away any ground; not for a moment did he look as he was the least bit unsettled. He just got on with his business.
At 3-4 in the fifth, Nadal was down break point, theoretically five points from defeat. But he drove an inside out forehand deep to Federer's forehand and then stormed in to put away a bounce smash. Nadal held on for 4-4, but Federer was fighting with his own kind of intensity. As the match moved toward almost total darkness, both men were exemplary. Nadal had to serve to save the match no fewer than three times, but he allowed Federer only five points in those games.

At 5-5, Federer stood ominously close to defeat at 15-40, but served his way confidently out to 6-5. At 6-6, Federer trailed 0-30 but held on in a long game. But then, at 7-7, with only a few minutes of remote light left in the sky, Nadal finally broke Federer for 8-7 on his fourth break point as Federer drove a forehand approach long. The drama was nearly over, but not entirely. Serving for the match at 8-7, Nadal sliced his favorite first serve wide to the Federer forehand, and the Swiss drove a majestic backhand crosscourt that Nadal could barely touch.

Nadal did not let that frustrate him. He came up with a clutch service winner to the Federer forehand in the deuce court, and then Federer was off the mark with another forehand and it was over. Nadal had prevailed 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5),6-7 (8), 9-7 in four hours and 48 minutes. He had become the first Spaniard since Manuel Santana in 1966 to win Wimbledon. He had established himself as the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to win the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year. He had won his 24th consecutive match, his sixth tournament in his last seven appearances, and had taken a substantial step toward becoming the No. 1 ranked player in the world. He had saved 12 of 13 points in the match, losing his serve only once in the five sets, breaking Federer four times. He deserved his victory, even if Federer was unlucky and noble in defeat.

We do not need the rankings to tell us that Nadal is clearly the best tennis player in the world. With two majors in his 2008 collection, and a semifinal showing at the Australian Open to back it up, he has undeniably moved to the top of his profession. His goal now must be to keep moving beyond himself until he is able to finish the year as the top-ranked player in the world. He has an excellent chance to do that now, although Novak Djokovic (the Australian Open champion) will remain in hunt for No.1, and Federer will surely not let go easily of his hold as the world's greatest player, although he has now lost three majors in a row for the first time since he won his first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon in 2003.

In any event, Nadal did himself proud by preventing the mighty Federer from winning a modern record sixth Wimbledon championship in a row. He somehow found a way to stop Federer from completing a stirring comeback. In many ways, his breakthrough triumph on the lawns will mean even more to Nadal precisely because he was stretched to his absolute limits before he could succeed. This was a tennis match of the highest order, and Nadal beat one of the greatest grass court players of all time to take the title.

It doesn't get any better than that.

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