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The decade after Sampras and Agassi saw the emergence of a period of uncertainty in tennis, which slowly evolved into the greatest stretch of single-man dominance known in the Open Era. The Roger Federer era, which began in 2003 with his win at Wimbledon, was simply all-consuming—from 2003-2007, Federer would win the twelve slams it had taken Sampras a whole decade to amass.Yet amid the glory lurked a demon, an irrepressible challenge to his throne.
This, of course, was his nemesis, Rafael Nadal, whose rivalry with Federer was founded on almost every possible contrariety—a lefty playing a righty, a double handed backhand against Federer's single hander—defense over offense, top spin over a classic, flat delivery. He was the mechanical, new-age player of the modern era, using ever larger ad stringier rackets, while Federer was the reductionist, in his classic, abbreviated technique, using a small racket head.
It provided a most awesome spectacle for most of the decade of the 2000s—most matches between the two going the distance and inciting tantalising debates on the greatest player ever—was it Federer, for facing his greatest challenger ever, or Nadal, for beating him, who was considered the best ever? A catch-22 emerged, but one which reached a dramatic climax at Wimbledon in 2008.
Here was Nadal, who had beaten him three times in a row to this point, playing Federer, gunning for his sixth straight Wimbledon, which would forever immortalise his name in sporting history. The first two sets, however, went the Spaniard's way, as he continued his psychological dominance over the Swiss. A shift in power seemed to take place, as Nadal routinely outplayed Federer on his best surface.
In the third and fourth sets, however, Federer came alive, desperate to defend his title, playing bold tennis out of this world.
In the third set tie break, his serve was unplayable and he landed an ace on set point to equalise, for the moment, the momentum shift which had been taking place. The fourth proved utterly riveting, culminating in a tiebreak for the ages. Two passing shots defined its brilliance—a running forehand winner by Nadal and an impossible backhand pass by Federer, defying all probably physics and logic. A fifth set beckoned, almost as a necessary appendage to thus far stunning final.
Here, Nadal did what Borg had done in 1980, maintaining his composure without ruining his many squandered chances in the fourth. Game upon game went by until, in the fifteenth, Federer finally lost it, a temporary dip into imperfection landing in disaster, and Nadal sealed the match, 6-4 6-4 6-7 6-7 9-7.
It was Federer's first loss on grass in six years, and to a rival who had come to dominate their matches. It was a defining moment in men's tennis—the impregnable and unbeatable Federer had finally been felled on his own terms.
For six glorious years, he had bestrode the world as an untouchable number one, but for the first time, defeat spelled humanity, a dramatic crash to earth. Nadal had done what most had believed impossible, and halted the great Swiss' march to history. To whom should be accorded the greater glory—Federer, in losing to so irresistible a force as Nadal, or Nadal, who had beaten the greatest player ever, in the greatest match ever?