by Roger Childs

It did not really matter who had won Wimbledon’s longest men’s singles, for both were gloriously triumphant. Paul Weaver —The Guardian tennis correspondent

A meeting of champions

When the two best players in the world walked on to Wimbledon’s centre court for the men’s final in July 2008, no one was prepared for what was to follow. Everyone hoped there would be a quality match, as the recent winner at Roland Garros was playing the man defending the Wimbledon title. 

There was some excellent tennis in the first two sets, however going into the third, with Rafael Nadal ahead 6-4, 6-4 over Roger Federer, the crowd was anticipating an early trip home. But nobody was leaving their seat.

Different styles but impeccable credentials

Nadal and Federer at the time were arguably the two best tennis players ever. Coming into the 2008 final in London

  • they had won 12 out of the last 14 grand slams
  • they had contested the two previous Wimbledon finals
  • Federer had won the last five Wimbledon titles
  • Nadal had won the last four French Open crowns.

Roger Federer was at the peak of his powers with 12 grand slams under his belt. The Swiss maestro was a stylish perfectionist who had taken the game to new heights.

He was the complete player and the undoubted number one in the world. His game was based on:

  • a powerful serve which resulted in many aces 
  • a devastating single handed backhand, especially down the left hand line
  •  the greatest forehand the world has ever seen (Bud Collins Boston Globe)
  • unerring overhead and volleying 
  • great speed round the court
  • superb shot placement.

However the young pretender, Spaniard, Rafael Nadal had run Federer close in the previous two finals on centre court. He had also surprisingly annihilated the Swiss at the recent Roland Garros tournament 6-1, 6-3, 6-0. But could the King of clay prevail on Federer’s favoured grass surface?

Coached by his uncle, the inscrutable Toni Nadal, Rafa was a very disciplined player with a never-say-die attitude. He did not have the variety of Federer’s game or as fast a serve, but he had powerful ground strokes and a great placement instinct for producing winners. He also possessed breath-taking mobility and fitness which enabled him to make seemingly impossible returns and often run round his backhand to hit powerful, tightly angled forehands beyond the reach of his opponent.   

Strokes of genius

Although two sets down, Federer was not about to capitulate. He desperately wanted a record sixth Wimbledon title in a row. He took the third set in a tie break, but was in trouble at 2-5 in the fourth. 

He saved two match points in the eighth game and when Nadal uncharacteristically double faulted the Swiss was back in the set. It went to another nerve-wracking tie break which Federer eventually won 10-8. 

The quality of the play often left the crowd gasping and the commentators speechless. Everyone present and the millions watching on television realised they were witnessing something special. 

San Francisco Chronicle sports writer, Bruce Jenkins, recognised this as the best tennis match ever played, eclipsing the epic Wimbledon final of 1980 when Bjorn Borg beat John McEnroe 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16-18), 8-6.

The case for the Federer-Nadal match being number one rested on its unrelenting tension, the sustained brilliance and the fact that neither man allowed a troubling moment let him down.

All who watched were riveted by many incredible rallies which featured amazing retrievals, powerful crosscourt winners, unplayable down the line backhands, delicate drop shots, tightly angled volleys and ferocious smashes.

Greatness in the gloom

Unfortunately the weather and light played a role. There was a rain delay in the final set and the light was fading on the centre court which was years away from having a retractable roof. But still the finalists produced tennis which Jenkins describes as setting a standard of brilliance. 

The light was fading as the players went into what would be the sixteenth and final game of the fifth set.

  • I can’t see nothing, No? Nadal
  • I couldn’t see who I was playing. Federer

Reporters bemoaned the decision to play on in poor light. Bruce Jenkins: it was so dark at 9.16pm, the moment Federer netted forehand ended the match, they couldn’t have played another game. And Bud Collins commented: here’s Federer with the greatest forehand the world has ever seen and he puts a routine ball into the net.

Federer was gracious in defeat, but disappointed it’s tough on me to lose the biggest tournament in the world over maybe a bit of light.

Simply the best

The two great tennis players had played an extraordinary match, with Nadal winning 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7. Lasting 4 hours and 48 minutes, it was the longest final in history and will stay long in the memory of those who watched it courtside and on television.

The beaten finalist in the superb 1980 encounter with Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, summed up the general feeling: …this is the greatest match I have ever seen. L John Wertheim subsequently wrote about the match in a book entitled Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played.  It was later made into a documentary.