On a wet and cold day in Southwest London, a gathering gloom was threatening to swallow the air around the Centre Court. Amidst near darkness, Rafael Nadal was glowing like a solar fire even as Roger Federer looked like a devastated man, dealing with a dark death.
It was a moment of sporting poignancy that was hard to miss even if you were lost on an Amazonian trail. The first Sunday of July 2008 will be remembered as the day on which Nadal defaced the fine silken cloak of greatness that adorned one of the most majestic players to have ever graced the game of tennis.
At the end of the four hour 48 minute epic, Centre Court was awash in a warm radiance as if it were a piece of hallowed turf from a distant heavenly abode. Nadal struck a hammer blow to Federer’s legacy with a brutal 6-4, 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-7(5), 9-7 victory to end his five year reign at Wimbledon.
The beastly act not only snatched the coveted Challenge Cup from the possessive grasp of the Swiss, but also tilted the rivalry irretrievably in favour of Nadal. It was their sixth Grand Slam final and the Spaniard took control of the stakes with a 4-2 edge over his storied rival.
The tension had been building up nicely in the lead up to this 18th encounter between the two giants of millennial tennis. Nadal had denied Federer four years in a row at the French Open. Experts believed that the 2008 final in Paris, where the Spaniard battered the Swiss into submission in less than two hours would leave a deep scar. Nadal took just an hour and 48 minutes to maul Federer 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 and set the stage for his third assault on the Swiss man’s crown.
Still considered a clay court marvel, Nadal had been spending endless hours with Uncle Toni honing his game, largely built around a monster forehand with copious top spin. Significant improvements in service, the backhand slice and growing confidence in the forecourt meant that Nadal had been tapping at the heels of Federer even on grass. The final in 2007 had stretched the distance, before Federer prevailed 7-6(7), 4-6, 7-6(3), 2-6, 6-2.
The signs were ominous for Federer – he had lost three straight matches to Nadal – at Rome, Hamburg and the defeat in Paris. While fanatics argued they were all on clay, the battering he received in Paris was so brutal it could have driven fear in the heart of the most battle weathered Aztec warrior. The Swiss hadn’t been defeated on grass since Mario Ancic did so as an 18-year-old qualifier in 2002.
But no man since William Renshaw late in the nineteenth century had managed to win six in a row at Wimbledon, not even Pete Sampras. Federer had to deal with the onerous task of dealing with the weight of history, while his nemesis standing across the net was chipping away relentlessly to bring down the Swiss man’s edifice of greatness.
As the spectators filled every last seat to witness the much anticipated battle, the pungent air of expectation turned Centre Court into a galactic amphitheatre. That the rain forced a 35-minute delay to the start of the match only made the players antsier.