Five years have passed since Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal reached the peak of their Wimbledon rivalry. They met three consecutive years in the finals, 2006-08, fascinating the sports world with an epic trilogy that would immortalize their careers.
Their clashes were theatrical, their particular tennis styles forming indelible images and unbelievable contrasts. Their personal brands were magnified. Roger vs. Rafa became mythical and exaggerated to levels that still often define their reputations and legacies.
It was the height of their rivalry, when there seemed to be no end to their unwritten and lyrical librettos. It would also be the sudden end of their meetings on grass, before they would more often overlap with some of their best and worst times to come.
Federer’s loss to Nadal on French Open clay was the first time he had been defeated in a Grand Slam final. It was significant because Nadal alone kept Federer from sweeping the rest of the ATP Tour for two years. Wimbledon 2006 kept the crown on Federer’s head for a fourth straight year and kept Nadal from encroaching upon the rest of his global empire.
The Nadal win was particularly satisyfying because he had to close out a match played increasingly at the Spaniard's style and tempo. Fortunately for Federer, he had rolled to a 6-0 first set lead, before splitting tiebreakers and closing out the fourth set 6-3.
He later admitted, as reported by Steve Bierley of The Guardian, “It was awfully tight and I was getting awfully nervous in the end too.”
It’s never easy to be a demigod. Federer embodied tennis perfection, even to non-sports journalists like David Foster Wallace. Suddenly he was a source for literature and answers to existentialism. New converts to Federerism tuned in to watch him play tennis far beyond what could have been imagined one hundred years ago at the All-England Club. He was the king.
Federer stated his surprise at seeing Nadal in the finals: “"I honestly did not think he would reach the final but it's a fantastic effort, so congratulations for coming so far,” The Guardian reported.
Four weeks earlier during NBC’s coverage of the French Open, commentator John McEnroe expressed doubt that Nadal could win Wimbledon. “It’s not going to be easy. It’s easier for Roger to win here (at Roland Garros)."
But Nadal’s learning curve was much quicker. He survived a second round two-set deficit against qualifier Robert Kendrick, and seemed to warm up as the sun baked the grass into a better stage for his high topspin.
At age 20, Nadal's swagger was drawing support from a growing legion of tennis fans who liked his cut-off sleeves and fighting mentality. They wanted an antagonist to Federer. Unlike Andy Roddick, who had lost nine of 10 sets the past three years, Nadal was building his stubborn belief that he could defeat Federer at Wimbledon.
Act One of the Wimbledon trilogy had already showcased their competitive spirit, but it turned out to be merely the warm-up.
It would be the last three-Slam year for Federer, although the French Open had become a futile quest in trying to vanquish Nadal.
Critics and fans wondered if the front-running Federer, who often destroyed opponents midway through the first set, could win an epic five-set Grand Slam final. This year, they had their answer in a 7-6 4-6 7-6 2-6 6-2 classic that had many wondering if this was the greatest match of all-time.
Federer twice rallied back from 15-40 deficits to hold serve early in the fifth set. He not only slowed the charging Nadal, but found another gear of strength and brilliant tennis.
It would be perhaps his greatest victory, considering the pressure, to win a fifth straight Wimbledon title against another great champion.
Federer’s greatness had reached its peak. If Nadal had chipped away at his invincibility, he was at least worthy of those who were calling him the greatest player of all time.
Nadal had come so agonizingly close. Perhaps he should have won the match in four sets, dropping first and third set tiebreakers. He was known for his toughness and stamina, but he had faded away in the fifth and deciding set after a fourth-set knee strain.
The match, Nadal admitted in his autobiography, would be the source of frustration and determination. It was no longer enough to come close to Federer at Wimbledon. He was now metaphorically wearing the shoes that had been painful for Federer at Roland Garros.
As he listened to Federer’s gracious post-match comments, he could only play on and hope for one more opportunity to seize the trophy. The middle act of this trilogy had been the height of his despair, but the agony was already hardening him to greater accomplishment.
In 2008, Federer was struggling, relative to his previous four years. He had been bounced out of Australia by rising star Novak Djokovic, and had been humiliated at Roland Garros, once again, at the hands of Nadal.
Down two sets to Nadal at Wimbledon, Federer showed he was an extraordinary champion. He won a pair of tiebreakers and executed some of the greatest pressure shots in championship history. Nobody who watched the match will ever forget his fourth set match point save—an on-the-run backhand pass down the line.
He battled 16 games into the darkness of the fifth set, never losing his crown, but rather having to relinquish it to his great rival who had earned it.
Superlatives for this match continue to be formed. Sports journalist Jon Wertheim summed up many fans’ feeling with the title of his book, Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played.
Federer’s reign may have ended, but he was ever the hero, dignified in defeat and always the champion.
After four French Open titles, Nadal finally won Wimbledon. It would be the centerpiece to his autobiography as he recounted his triumph in becoming the best player in the world.
The book recounted several of his thoughts and feelings with key points, successes and missed opportunities. His sense of detail was not only remarkable, but underscored the focus and concentration he needed to persevere in this victory.
Above all, Nadal had to hold on against one of tennis’ greatest players on his de facto home court. He had figuratively broken serve in their rivalry by winning on grass. It was now Nadal who became the first player since Bjorn Borg to capture the French-Wimbledon double. He had won with his courage and resilience as much as with his focus and talent. He had climbed the mountain and taken the crown.
Nobody could have predicted this would be their last meeting on grass. They were both now fully-formed champions who had captured the imagination of the sports world.
Their rivalry had played out at the cathedral of all tennis for three consecutive years, a kind of operatic ensemble complete with beautiful scenery, traditional white attire, rising drama, breathless shot-making, anguish and triumph. Perhaps tennis would never be so beautiful again.
Federer had lost Wimbledon, and with this came the realization that with Nadal’s opposition, more Grand Slam titles on any court would be increasingly difficult. He was approaching his 27th birthday and he would need to adapt his game to face the challenges of other younger, stronger opponents.
He would no longer be as dominant, but could still pick his spots in returning as the No. 1 player.
All of this made his French Open triumph even more spectacular in 2009. He completed his career Grand Slam and would go on to another epic Wimbledon victory, this time against an inspired Andy Roddick.
Fifteen Grand Slam titles was now the ongoing record. In time, he would add two more.
For all of Federer’s heroics, it will be said that he triumphed two of three times against Nadal in the Wimbledon finals.
It still takes a rivalry to enhance greatness.
For Nadal, the Wimbledon trilogy would be the ultimate building block to extending his own dynasty. Fans who had dismissed his clay court dominance now begrudgingly accepted his conquests on grass as shaping his legacy to legend.
Nadal would win another epic five-set match against Federer, this time at the 2009 Australian Open. He had convinced many tennis historians that it was now he, not Federer, who could possibly become the greatest player tennis had ever seen.
He would cap this brilliance with three consecutive Grand Slam victories in 2010.
There would be injury setbacks and the emergence of Novak Djokovic, who would form another, more difficult, rivalry for Nadal. Through it all, Nadal kept winning French Open titles.
A secret ingredient to their Wimbledon rivalry was the new grass that had been replaced in 2001. What had formerly been 70 percent rye grass and 30 percent creeping red fescue, was now more durable with only rye grass. The effect all but killed off serve-and-volley tennis.
Federer’s game would be enhanced with his preference to strike from the baseline, and Nadal’s baseline game would reap even greater benefits.
The tennis fans were the biggest winners, now witness to sublime all-court tennis on grass, contested by two masters who could play their own style of tennis, graceful, brutish, creative and forceful. This could not have happened with the old grass.
The rivalry also lifted the tides of competitiveness for other young competitors. Inspiration and acclaim stirred up greater resolve for the dreams of Djokovic, Murray and the rest of the tour. Many fans consider 2008 the advent of a stronger, deeper ATP.
The Fedal Wimbledon trilogy also set a standard of quality and excellence that has already become the benchmark for recent and present achievements. There are those who pine for these halcyon memories through YouTube, blogs and other forms of media.
Five years have passed and Nadal is now the 27-year-old champion once again in the familiar position of trying to chase down the No. 1 ranking, this time with Djokovic leading the pack. Federer is nearly 32 years old, and hoping to defend his 2012 Wimbledon final.
With the seeding and draw yet to be determined, Wimbledon 2013 looks to be the most balanced and fiercely competitive tournament in recent memory. The top four players, including Andy Murray, all have strong resumes and spectacular skills to assist them in winning Wimbledon.
But if the tennis gods are in the mood for nostalgia, perhaps they will roll the dice for one more meeting of Federer and Nadal on Wimbledon grass.