Wimbledon's Trilogy of Five-Set Finals, 2007-09 (Part 1)
This is a three-part series, which will recap and reflect on the three finals with which Wimbledon was graced in the years 2007-09, the first ever occasion when the All England Club had enjoyed three straight years of five set finals.
It has been nearly two years since the last, when Federer broke Roddick for a record 15th grand slam; yet the magic still lingers in the collective memory, and it is worthwhile wondering in retrospect on the significance of these years, in 2011.
The first of our trio, the final of 2007, was in many ways a turning point in the tennis decade of the 2000s. It was the first time that a final would go five sets since 2001, but unlike that match, between two Wimbledon finalist heartbreakers, Ivanisevic and Rafter, this was destined to be a veritable battle royale, between the undisputed top two players in the world, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Federer had bestrode the grass of Wimbledon like a spectre, a surreal, unworldly athlete, gliding along the grass with the most exquisite grace and ease. For four years, in fact, he had been almost unbeatable on this surface and at this tournament. Yet already in 2006, his most dominant Wimbledon yet, there had been some intimations of the shadow that would engulf his nebulous reign—his nemesis without par, Rafael Nadal. The Spaniard had trudged his way to the final, on occasion bogged down by troublesome opponents (Mikhail Youzhny taking him to five sets), but ultimately proving too destructive, too good.
But the first few games of the match was more a contest between king and joker, with Federer very quickly up to a 3-0 lead. But at 3-1, Nadal broke back with a stunning backhand winner that defied all human possibilities as to stomach core strength—the sort of cracking down the line winner he would start, only then, to hit with considerable and fearsome consistency.
The match became more tense, as it headed to a tiebreak. Federer, challenged, managed to conjure three set points—by experience alone, it seemed. But Nadal, miraculously, saved them all, and had tantalisingly close looks at 6-6 and 7-7. But Federer, at the last moment, saved the set, which he had looked dangerously close to wasting. A backhand volley off a tentative slice secured it, 7-6.
Nadal's resilience in the second would prove disconcerting, however, and it proved very clear that this was a match in every true sense, and not just a jittery performance by the defending champion. Indeed Federer would, having broken in the first set, be unable to break serve until the fifth. A pattern emerged, with Nadal dominating from the baseline, and Federer saving himself only by his serve. But at the end of the second Nadal's persistence proved too much, and with another rocket backhand he stunned the crown by breaking the Federer serve—for the set, 6-4.
Federer was finally in legitimate trouble, as for the first time in the tournament he trailed in the match. Yet even so there was a palpable sense that he was playing slightly tentatively, and uncertainly—no doubt in large part to the unheralded and unexpected aggression of Nadal. Exhilarating rallies emerged, especially at the end of the third, as Federer served twice at deuce a game from losing it. Another tiebreak beckoned. The tension reached a high, but as in the first, Federer's superior experience in the bigger moments proved decisive. An ambitious backhand crosscourt drew the error, and Federer had the third, 7-6.
As Federer embarked on the fourth, the match seemed a foregone conclusion—Nadal had played his heart out and still lost the third. But then, out of nowhere, Federer played some uncharacteristically (characteristically?) nonchalant points to be broken.
Two games later, Nadal had a second break, for 3-0. The match suddenly seemed far from over. It was a speedy affair, but significant, and Nadal claimed the second with two breaks of serve, and considerable aplomb, 6-2. Federer, now looked in deep trouble.
It was the first time that he had had to play a fifth set at Wimbledon since his defeat of Pete Sampras six years previously; would this be another changing of the guard? For the first few games it looked like one—Federer continuing to splutter, allowing Nadal to hold with ease, as he dominated Federer's backhand with his voracious forehand.
Break points appeared, all out of nowhere—any one of them would have dealt Nadal, quite certainly, the decisive advantage. But Federer upped his level at just these moments, with serve and re-focus, just enough to edge ahead. At length, he worked to a meagre 3-2 lead. Then, Federer entered god mode.
Nadal's error gave Federer a sniff, which he quickly turned into a peek down a hole with a sizzling forehand passing shot. His next forehand was simply incredible—a down the line winner which shot off the line. Admittedly Nadal made the error in hitting it back to that wing, but it was the ferocity and depth of it, which in an instant turned the tide. It was a defining shot.
The shot most would recall, however, was the break point, the pseudo-match point, perhaps one of Federer's rallies of the decade. It was a slow, arrhythmic, quintessentially Federer point. Nadal pulled the trigger first with a backhand down the line, before Federer hit a surreal slice crosscourt, opening up the line for the forehand and disabling Nadal's defence; a forehand winner ensued, and a yell, as no one before then had heard, for almost four years, at Wimbledon. It was the cathartic cry of triumph.
Four serves later, it was 5-2, and before long, the deflated Nadal faced championship point against him. It was grasped by Federer in as emphatic a manner possible, with thumping forehands opening up the court for the final kiss of death, a shot he had joked as a kid he would hit to win Wimbledon, an unreturnable smash—the match was over. Federer had won.
There is something unusual about seeing a champion in distress, something disconcerting and at the same time enticing. Everyone saw this that day, and Federer's response was quite magisterial. Years on, now we reflect and realise this was his last victory over Nadal at a grand slam. With the way things are nowadays it may be his last. But in equaling Borg, and beating Nadal in doing so, Federer forever immortalised this match.
It was one of Federer's last victories as the grand doyen of tennis, his last in his five-year run at Wimbledon. But it would prove only the beginning of a trilogy of Wimbledon's most epic finals.
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