Tennis players rarely catch the attention of the American public anymore, even as modern racquet technology and training techniques have made the sport more exciting. The sport has been dominated by Europeans for the last decade, and its old country club following has largely gravitated to golf. Despite the Williams sisters' mastery of the women's game, it takes a truly epic match between the top players for tennis to be water cooler fodder. Sports Illustrated writer L. Jon Wertheim recounts such a match in this excellent book. For the first time since the Borg-McEnroe rivalry of three decades earlier, the interest of the casual American sports fan was piqued by a tennis match.
On July 6, 2008, Switzerland's Roger Federer and Spain's Rafael Nadal, the number one and number two ranked players in the world, met in the Wimbledon final. Federer, with his serve and volley approach on grass, has the balletic grace of players from the wooden racquet era and hits the ball with pinpoint accuracy. Nadal is a classic baseliner, with soccer-style footwork and a nasty lefty topspin. Prior to the 2008 Wimbledon Final, Nadal, who was only twenty-two, had never won a Grand Slam on a surface other than clay. Federer, who was twenty-six, had already won five straight Wimbledon Championships, and was going for his sixth.
After a thirty-five minute rain delay before the match, Nadal was able to break Federer's serve twice to win the first two sets, 6-4, 6-4. During the third set, another rain delay, lasting eighty minutes, further halted the match. Federer came back in the third and fourth sets, winning two tense tiebreaks, 7-6 (5) , 7-6 (8), while staving off three match points.
Another rain delay of thirty minutes came in the final set. The players returned to play at twilight to try to finish the match. They did not want to come back the next day. Federer could not capitalize on his single opportunity to break Nadal's serve early in the set. (Wimbledon does not have final set tiebreaks, so they played on with the score at 6-6.) Nadal finally broke Federer's serve in the sixteenth game to win the final set 9-7. He celebrated his first Wimbledon crown at 9:15 pm after the longest Wimbledon final in history.
Five years after their epic Wimbledon final, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are at vastly different places in their respective careers. Federer seems to be past his prime and Nadal is the reigning U.S. Open champion, on the verge of becoming the number one ranked player again. Together they have won thirty of the last forty-three Grand Slams since the summer of 2003, and are contenders for the title of the Greatest Of All-Time.