Many tennis experts believe that Wimbledon 2008 was the beginning of change of guard in Men’s tennis. Roger Federer, who was so dominant on the grass courts of SW 19, winning 5 consecutive titles from 2003 to 2007, fought valiantly and lost to his nemesis Rafael Nadal. As the Wimbledon center court descended into darkness that night, a new world order was being established in tennis and a future all time great banished the critics who named him a clay court bully. Roger Federer was able to resurrect himself and win the US Open final against Andy Murray. The stage was perfectly set for a grand finale at the 2009 Australian Open.
Roger Federer had to come back from 2 sets down against Thomas Berdych in the fourth round, but he made it to the final largely unscathed, beating Marat Safin and Andy Roddick on the way. Rafael Nadal on the other hand stormed to the semi finals without dropping a set but ran into fellow Spaniard, Fernando Verdasco, who was in scintillating form. While Federer demolished Andy Roddick in just about 2 hours, Nadal had to play a grueling 5 set match for more than 5 hours. The match at the time was the longest in Australian open history. Although Nadal came through the verdasco blitz and made it to the final, all the odds were stacked against him. He faces the toughest test against Roger Federer in his first grand slam final on a hard court. No Spaniard has previously won the Norman Brooks Challenge trophy. There were concerns that he may not have physically recovered yet from that epic semifinal clash.
People thronged the Rod Laver Arena to witness the titanic match. Both players had equal support. Federer had to prove a point and win back his lost aura. He had to prove to himself, more than anyone, that he can defeat the Spaniard when it mattered the most. Nadal was in the best phase of his career. He was the reigning Wimbledon and French open champion and won the Olympic gold at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and he wanted to push his case as an all court player.
The match started on a emphatic note with both players exchanging breaks in the respective service games. Federer was very aggressive with this returns and the approach paid rich dividends. He broke Nadal’s serve at 3-3 and looked set to run with the first set. But Nadal, who produces his best tennis when his back is pushed to the wall, was able to miraculously turn defense into offense and break Federer’s serve immediately. The deciding break of the set came in the 11th game when Nadal broke Federer, raced to a 6-5 lead and held rather easily to win the first set 7-5. It was already an uphill battle for Federer. But he was up to the task. Federer was more aggressive in his approach in the second set. He produced some of the best ground strokes on his way to winning the set 6-3.
Nadal though, continued to pummel the Federer backhand with his trademark forehands coupled with heavy top spin. Federer had his chances in the third set. He failed to convert multiple break points in consecutive games and had to pay the price. The missed chances created a mental block for Federer and resulted ultimately in him losing the set on double fault in a one sided tiebreak. At that point, many predicted Nadal to just run away with the match. But Federer had other thoughts and came back strongly in the fourth. Almost against the run of play, Federer upped his game and broke Nadal in his first service game of the fourth set to take a 2-0 lead. Unsurprisingly, Nadal immediately broke back. The familiar script of Wimbledon 2008 seemed to unfold again for Federer. He was on the verge of defeat with Nadal holding multiple break points on his serve. But the champion that he is, Federer summoned all of his talent to withstand the storm and was able to reverse the pressure on Nadal, breaking him in the sixth game. Federer was then able to hold his ground and wrap up the set 6-3. It went down to the wire as expected and the Championship hung in the balance with one final set to play.
It was supposed to be a titanic last set. With Nadal tiring from the effects of another grueling match, the odds were in favor of the Swiss master. But with the score at 2-1, something snapped and Federer completely lost his rhythm. He played a poor service game and gifted the break to the Spaniard. Federer was never really able to come back and Nadal duly broke Federer’s serve again and won his first hard court major.
What began at Wimbledon reached its conclusion some 10000 miles away on the hard courts of Melbourne. Federer broke into tears and was consoled by Nadal at the presentation ceremony. It was a powerful image and this was an intense rivalry. But there was no bad blood. There were no cuss words being said on court. There were no excuses. Both of them held the game in high esteem and showed the world that you can be rivals, yet be respectful to each other. The match was further proof that we are in fact witnessing the golden era of men’s tennis.
Trivia: Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal played each other in 9 grand slam finals till date – The most by any pair in the open era.