As rule, you use superlatives at your peril. But you’ve found safe harbor in declaring the 2008 Wimbledon men’s final “the greatest tennis match ever played.” When Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal met on Centre Court that Sunday afternoon (and evening and night) in July, it marked the rare sporting event that lived up to the considerable hype. And then eclipsed it entirely.
Roger was 26, Rafa 22. And Federer-Nadal had already become a classic sports rivalry. This was a matchup heightened by clashing styles. Righty versus lefty. Classic technique versus ultramodern. No. 1 versus No. 2. Feline light versus bovine heavy. Middle European restraint and quiet meticulousness versus Iberian bravado and passion. Dignified power versus unapologetic, whoomphing brutality. Zeus versus Hercules.
The tennis salon’s comparison of Federer’s evolved beauty to Nadal’s Neanderthal drudge was-and remains-equal parts unfair and crass. But accepting the premise that they’re both artists, it’s valid to suggest they’re from decidedly different schools. Federer is a delicate, brush-stroking impressionist and Nadal is a dogged, free-wheeling abstract expressionist.
Until this point, the two had an unspoken custody battle. Nadal ruled the clay-he had just beaten Federer, yet again, in the French Open final just four weeks prior. Federer ruled the grass-he had beaten Nadal in the 2006 and 2007 Wimbledon final. But by 2008, all bets were off.
Marrying power and accuracy, Nadal won the first two sets. Federer then, inevitably, awoke, and won the next two in tiebreaks, including arguably the greatest breaker ever in the fourth set. Adding to the cinematic quality: While the court may have appeared reasonably well-lit on television, this was a distortion-in reality, it might as well have been illuminated with toy flashlights. Despite the progressing dusk deep in the fifth set, Nadal still managed to pick up Federer’s serves, returning every offering deep in the court. It was 9:15 p.m. when Nadal held his fourth Championship Point.
Blocking out the chorus of “Come on, Rafa” from the crowd, he wiped his face, bounced the ball seven times, and hit a cautious first serve followed by a cautious backhand. The ball landed barely behind the service line, but took a tricky bounce, darting to the right. Nothing drastic, but it was enough to throw off Federer’s timing. And it was a reminder that for all the virtues that make up a seminal sporting event, there is also a component of luck. Always a component of luck.
Federer swung forcefully but awkwardly, his arms moving forward while his body weight jerked laterally. As ever, he stared at the ball as it left his strings. The shot was impeded by the top of the net and died on his own side of the court. And with that, the greatest match in tennis history had concluded. After four hours and 48 minutes of dazzling theater and dazzling tennis, Nadal had defeated Federer 6–4, 6–4, 6–7, 6–7, 9–7. Game, set, match.
While this match may have marked the apotheosis of their rivalry, it certainly did not mark the end of it. They have played each other 20 more times since and, between them, won 20 more Slams since that fateful day. Today, astonishingly, Nadal and Federer-ages 32 and 36 respectively-are ranked 1-2, and have taken turns winning each of the last six majors.