Campeón, Sportmeister, There's Not Much in-Between

Burton DeWitt@bsd987Senior Analyst IJuly 6, 2008

There were some clichés I never thought I would say. Near the top of that list was “both men deserved to win.”

Maybe I didn't fully understand the implications of such a statement; maybe I thought it couldn't capture reality; maybe I avoided it because it was a cliché. None of that matters now. After watching the gentlemen's singles finals at Wimbledon Sunday, there is no saying that has more truth that I have ever come across.

Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer in quickening darkness late Sunday evening in Centre Court at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in a five-set epic that will go down as the greatest tennis match ever played, 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7. The victory ended Federer's five year reign at Wimbledon and allowed Nadal to turn the tides after losing to Federer in the finals in England in consecutive years.

But both men deserved to win.

From the very first point of the match, the quality of the tennis was almost as electric as the crowd. Yes, there were some mishits and errors that you wouldn't expect out of either player, the two best players of the generation, but the quality of tennis was unexplainable.

Both players gave everything.

Nadal managed to return some shots that just didn't make sense. In the fourth set tiebreaker, he got to a Federer cross-court forehand and hit a winner down the line. No one else in the world would have even touched it.

Federer came through in the clutch. I lost count at how many aces he had when facing break point or down 0-30 to stay in the match. Then there was his backhand passing shot later in that fourth set tiebreaker at Championship Point for Nadal that placed itself gently in the back corner of the court.

I usually don't applaud often when I'm watching at home, but I did after almost every other point. The quality was unreal.

I thought it was over when Nadal took the second set 6-4, giving himself a two set lead. Then to boot, Federer fell behind 0-40 on his serve in the middle of the third set.

Before you knew it, Federer had held and we were in a rain delay. Federer then won the set in a tiebreaker.

Federer had his chances to win. He faced 13 Nadal break points, but he only converted one of them. Probably the most crucial came in the fifth set at 4-3. Had Federer broken, he would have had an opportunity to serve out for the title.

Nadal got ahead of Federer 15-40 in the 15th game of the set, but Federer came through with another clutch ace and fought off the second break point. Nadal earned another opportunity, which Federer again saved. Finally, on the fourth break point, Federer hit the ball long and Nadal tried to serve it out.

On his second Championship Point of the game and fourth of the match, Rafael Nadal closed out Roger Federer in near-darkness. It was the longest finals match in Wimbledon history at four hours and 48 minutes. The previous record? A paltry four hours and 16 minutes in 1982 when Jimmy Connors defeated John McEnroe.

McEnroe was the NBC announcer for Sunday's match and even he couldn't think of a greater match.

“I think this would have to be the greatest match I've ever seen,” he said. It wasn't that long before he added an epitaph.

“I'd like to think there were no losers.”

I never thought I would agree with such sentiments, but I have to. Both men gave everything.

Roger Federer was crying at the end of the match. You could see the tears in his eyes. I've never seen him cry when he lost at Roland Garros.

Rafael Nadal, right after Roger Federer hit the fourth Championship Point into the net, flopped to the ground, nothing left, and he too began to cry. I don't remember seeing him shed tears after any of his four Roland Garros conquests.

Probably no one, not even Federer, could be disappointed with this match. Both hit nearly twice as many winners as errors. Neither could have been faulted if he lost for giving the match to the opponent.

Rafael Nadal went out and won the match. Federer almost did the same. And if Federer had won, I'd still be writing this article.

For nearly seven hours, five of which were spent playing tennis and the other two waiting for the rain to cease, the two best tennis players in the world played the best tennis of their lives. And what they left us was the greatest sporting contest of all time.

It didn't take long for ESPN to offer up a poll asking which was more thrilling: the Tiger Woods vs. Rocco Mediate playoff at the U.S. Open in June or Sunday's Wimbledon final, and the tennis match held a slim 54 percent to 46 percent lead. I'm willing to bet the entire 46 percent that voted for the golf didn't watch Sunday's match.

Federer and Nadal gave everything. Every point was unreal; it really was. The shots that these two men hit lack verbiage.

I cannot fully digest what I watched.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal both deserved to win. They both deserved to lift the Gentlemen's Singles Trophy. They both deserved to read the trophy and see the inscription, “The All England Lawn Tennis Club Single Handed Champion of the World."

The trophy was first awarded in 1887, one year after William Renshaw became the only man to win six consecutive titles. And with Nadal's victory, nobody has matched him.

But if losing can ever approach winning, Federer has come the closest. No runner-up that I've ever seen has deserved the title more than Federer did this year.

Not Patrick Rafter in 2001. Not John McEnroe in 1980. Not Rafael Nadal in 2007. All three played brilliant matches in defeat.

But Sunday was something different. Sunday was something unreal.

Nadal and Federer both deserve to win the title and the tears in their eyes sum it up perfectly.

It hurt Roger Federer to lose. It hurt Rafael Nadal to win. They both could see how much the other one wanted it.

Neither wanted it more; neither less. Neither played better; neither worse. Neither gave more; neither less.

For one Sunday in suburban London, two utter equals, at least in terms of talent and heart, gave everything. To say one of them lost is an insult the other.

Rafael Nadal won the title fair and square, but Roger Federer did not under any circumstance lose it. That's an important distinction.

I'd rather avoid clichés, but this one just cannot be circumvented.


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