Ten years ago, I sat on a white leather couch in my small studio in Houston, in front of the used TV I had bought from a friend. Too nervous to communicate with anyone, I ignored all the texts people were sending me and watched the TV, transfixed. I was a graduate student from India, getting ready to leave my doctoral program in literature and creative writing in a year and applying for jobs in academia. I also remember other details about my life from that summer, the company I kept, the places where I hung out, the books I read. Sometimes we witness an event that becomes imprinted on the mind, destined to be associated forever with other events in one’s life. When you look back on this very day ten years ago, what emotions do you feel? Joy? Sorrow? Regret? Or, simply, nostalgia, for a time in your life that will never return?
It’s July 6, 2008.
Over the past few years, the rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal has emerged as one of the greatest in all sport. The contrasting styles and personalities of these two men have enthralled tennis fans everywhere, and split fans into two camps of diehard supporters.
A little after 2.30 pm on Sunday, following the first rain delay of the afternoon, the two best men’s tennis players in the world walk onto Center Court at the All England Club to play the Wimbledon final for a third successive year. The five-time defending champion and world number one is aiming for a sixth straight title, an achievement that would surpass Bjorn Borg’s record.
On the other side is the Spaniard who is hoping to become the first player since the Swede to win back to back titles at the French Open and Wimbledon. By this time, Nadal has already proved that he is more than a clay court specialist. He has adapted his game to suit other surfaces, and his reward has been two prior final appearances where he lost to his great rival. However, every year he has inched closer. In 2006, he managed a set against Federer in the final. In 2007, he got two. This year, he came into Wimbledon having just demolished Federer in straight sets on the clay in Paris. Could this prove to be third time lucky?
The stage is set. It’s rumored that bettors have staked an estimated 10 million pounds on the outcome of this final, smashing previous records for a tennis match.
Sometimes, such a highly anticipated encounter can turn out to be something of a damp squib. But that will not happen on this day. Because on this day, everything will conspire to turn this into the GTMOAT (Greatest Tennis Match of All Time). The weather, the crowds, the expectations, and most of all, the players themselves.
Of course, the match starts with a 14-stroke rally that ends with a forehand winner down the line. Of course, Nadal wins the first two sets. Of course, Federer comes back from the brink of defeat to take the next two. Of course, he saves two championship points in the fourth set tiebreak, the second one whipped away with an astonishing backhand winner. Of course, the fifth and deciding set is interrupted by a third rain delay, and can only be finished in near darkness, such darkness that Hawk-Eye goes off unprovoked. Towards the end of the match, John McEnroe, who is calling the final for the BBC, finds himself uncharacteristically speechless, unable to find the words that would do justice to what he is witnessing.
The match lasted four hours and 48 minutes, to become the longest final ever to be played at Wimbledon. Three rain delays extended the total duration to over seven hours. When Federer battled back from a two-set deficit the momentum appeared to have shifted over to him. But the final twist in the tale came from the 22-year-old Nadal. By the time he won the last point and collapsed to the ground on his back at 9.15 pm, it was nearly too dark to see at the All England Club. In the light of dusk, the hallowed Center Court became a blur of purple and green – the official colors of the club. Even in their homes around the UK, viewers, glued to their sofas, continued to watch in growing darkness. It is reported that only after Nadal lifted the trophy did people leave their couches to turn on the lights, which resulted in a massive 1,400 megawatt power surge in the national grid.
The statistics reveal just how closely both men competed for several hours. Nadal won a total of 209 points, while Federer won 204. Each player faced only 13 break points in the five-set match. The winner to unforced error ratio was +33 for Nadal, and +37 for Federer.
But as the light faded on Center Court and came on in thousands of homes across the country, it wasn’t the stats that people were thinking of. It was the drama they had just witnessed. Such drama as is unlikely to ever unfold at Wimbledon again. Federer has said that defeat made him “more human.” It may have done the same for all those who were fortunate enough to be part of it.
The significance of that particular match may not seem as emphatic now as it did at the time. It was regarded as a major turning point. That loss was devastating to Federer because he sensed the imminent end of his era. The king had been dethroned at last. Two months later, Nadal would take over the number one ranking from Federer, who had held it for a record 237 weeks. The Spaniard would go on to defeat his great rival again in the Australian Open final the following January. His star was on the rise. Their storied rivalry was getting a little one-sided. In fact, many critics thought Federer’s time at the top was ending and that a new reign was underway.
The summer of ‘08
In retrospect, that misty July afternoon in a sleepy village in England may have marked the peak of a glorious rivalry but it also seems now to be tinted with the kind of innocence and promise that we associate with a childhood summer. The summer that we think will last forever. The summer before the world changes.
In the ten years that have passed since then, many changes have occurred in men’s tennis overall, and even at Wimbledon, that institution that resists change so valiantly. New records have been set, technology introduced, and champions crowned. Here are some of the significant examples:
- A retractable roof was installed over Center Court the following year, which meant that the interminable rain delays of the past would no longer be a factor, at least in the finals. This would ensure that the schedule could be completed on time, but it also meant that we would never again experience the kind of drama that we did in 2008.
- The longest tennis match in history was played at Wimbledon in 2010 between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut. It lasted 11 hours and 5 minutes, over a span of three days, with a final set score of 70-68. A plaque commemorating that match now stands at Court 18. But so far, Wimbledon has no plans of introducing a final set tie break.
- It was in 2009 that injuries began to seriously impact Nadal’s career. Tendinitis in his knees forced him to skip Wimbledon, which meant he was unable to defend his title. In the coming years, despite one more championship run in 2010, he began to look increasingly fragile on grass, falling to much lower-ranked players in early rounds.
- Roger Federer went on to win three more titles at Wimbledon. As his body aged, grass would offer comfort and reassurance when all else failed. By 2017, he had begun to skip the clay court season entirely to preserve his body for Wimbledon.
- 2009 also saw the emergence of the Big Four, a group that included Federer, Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. Together, they have won 48 of the last 53 majors. Initially the challengers, Djokovic and Murray gradually became the top two players in the world for a while, establishing a rivalry that threatened to eclipse Federer and Nadal’s.
- The dramatic rise and fall of Djokovic is one of the most interesting stories of the past decade. Since Wimbledon 2008 he has won 11 majors, including three titles at the All England Club. In 2016, he became the fourth man in the Open Era to complete the career slam at Roland Garros. It was his fourth successive major. It was now the Serb, who looked unbeatable. But then came the sudden decline. His subsequent early losses and slide in the rankings have been attributed variously to injuries, personal problems, and lack of motivation. He has now gone two years without a major title.
- For a long time, Murray had looked like the perpetual bridesmaid. It took him five gut-wrenching final appearance before he won one – the US Open in 2012. His two victories at Wimbledon and Olympic Gold Medal in 2016 earned him a knighthood and the number one ranking. With Djokovic’s slide, it seemed like the Scotsman’s time to shine had finally come. Unfortunately, however, their fates appear to be intertwined. A lingering hip injury has pushed Murray to the sidelines since last year. While Djokovic has begun his comeback in earnest, Murray’s prospects remain doubtful.
- The five majors that have been won by players outside the Big Four have been split between Juan Martin Del Potro, Stan Wawrinka, and Marin Cilic. But none of them has won Wimbledon. Del Potro, the 2009 US Open champion, was sidelined by injury during what should have been his peak years. Wawrinka, a three-time Grand Slam winner, emerged from Federer’s shadow late in his career to seriously challenge the Big Four. But he, too, is just coming back from surgery and is struggling at present to resume his earlier form. Of the three, Cilic, the 2014 US Open winner and last year’s Wimbledon runner-up, has a game best suited for grass, and looked like a serious contender this year until he lost in the second round.
- While the fortunes of these veterans have ebbed and flowed, several young players have burst onto the scene in the last couple of years. A new year-ending tournament for the season’s best players under 21 was launched in 2017. The first of the Next Generation ATP Finals was won by South Korea’s Chung Hyeon. Other notable Next Gen stars on the tour right now are Alexander Zverev of Germany and Denis Shapovalov of Canada. Zverev in particular has been hailed by Nadal and others as a future number one.
- The cycle of tennis life requires that older players exit the stage to make room for new stars. In the past decade there have been some notable retirements. Former Wimbledon champion Lleyton Hewitt and three-time runner up Andy Roddick have both quit professional tennis and moved on, leaving behind their own legacies.
- It is not only players who retire. Last year, French umpire Pascal Maria announced that he was retiring from professional tennis at age 44. The veteran had umpired the 2008 final between Federer and Nadal.
Roger and Rafa: Enduring through time
And so, here we are, ten years later. The world is a different place. The political climate, the economy, and cultural trends, have shifted. We have all grown up or at least grown older. Everything changes.
Then you look up and there they are. Roger and Rafa. The top two seeds at this year’s Wimbledon. Between the two of them they have won the last six majors. Nadal has once again come to England fresh from a remarkable 11th French Open win. Federer has once again won the warm up tournament at Stuttgart. At the end of the second round, a meeting in the final between them remains a possibility. The more things have changed, the more they have somehow, impossibly, stayed the same. Players have risen and fallen. Even umpires have retired. A new, hungry generation has arrived. And yet, there they are. Rafa and Roger. Albeit with a little less hair.
The truth is that one of these days, even these two will in fact leave the game. In doing so, they will leave behind countless records and memories. But this might just be the one that endures – of a match played in twilight, with spectators enthralled, commentators speechless, and the competitors superhuman. The most extraordinary shots that defy the laws of physics rain forth from all corners of the court. At the end, flashbulbs go off from dozens of cameras, creating streaks of silver light like fireflies. And two champions, dressed in white, one in elegant trousers and the other in long bohemian shorts, hold up their trophies. Joy and despair all at once. No matter whom you support, it’s a night you will never forget. It’s a night you will hark back to a decade later, as you watch them performing miracles in their thirties, and find yourself wishing for just one more.