The Measure of Great Tennis One: 2008 V. 2009 Wimbledon Finals

Marianne Bevis@@MarianneBevisSenior Writer IAugust 25, 2009

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND - JULY 05:  Roger Federer of Switzerland plays a forehand during the men's singles final match against Andy Roddick of USA on Day Thirteen of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 5, 2009 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

The 2008 Wimbledon final has been touted as the greatest tennis match ever (and confirmed as such by none other than John McEnroe, a contestant in the previous match to hold that title).

It followed two encounters at the most prestigious of Grand Slams between the same two players, who had also been the top-ranked men in the world for over three years.

Just a year later, Wimbledon was blessed with another headline-hitting final that itself challenged for the title of greatest ever.

On this occasion, the contest brought together one of the protagonists from the 2008 tennis-fest with the man against whom he had the oldest rivalry.

The stage is therefore set to attempt an objective assessment between these two consecutive Wimbledon triumphs.

So step up, 2008 and 2009, the first matches to be assessed by the formula devised by Bleacher Report’s top-notch science brain, Claudia Celestial Girl: the CCG template.

To quickly recap the criteria and scoring, each topic and sub-topic (12 in all) is worth 0-3 points. Each match, therefore, may earn up to 36 points.

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(NB Apologies for the length of this piece. I was keen to thoroughly test the template at its first outing.)

2008: Roger Federer v. Rafael Nadal

A. What's At Stake (records, history and reputation)?

There was a huge amount at stake in this match. Roger Federer had suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of Rafael Nadal less than a month before at the French Open. He had failed to win a single Masters title thus far and trailed Nadal heavily in the year’s ranking.

He still, though, clung to the overall No. 1 ATP ranking, having pinned Nadal into the No. 2 position for three years. In a season marred by illness and struggling form, he was nevertheless the favourite to win on his best surface. He was, after all, undefeated on grass in 65 matches.

But Nadal was in the form of his life, had run Federer close at Wimbledon the year before, and came to the tournament holding his first grass title from Queens. And a win in this Grand Slam would as good as handing him the No. 1 ranking.

To cap it all, the doubters who had begun to question Federer’s claim to be the best ever would be vindicated; the elusive Sampras record of 14 Slams would move still further beyond his grasp, and the chance of a record-breaking six-in-a-row Wimbledon titles would evaporate.

Rarely had a match provided the potential for making or breaking a reputation, or single-handedly turning the tide from one champion to another.

Three points

B. The Dramatic Context

1) The natural world environment

The weather, almost as a matter of principle, had to factor into this momentous match. It would be last year that rain could play a role—a new roof would protect the Centre Court from 2009. And play a role it did: three times.

The match started half an hour late. Then, towards the end of the third set, with Federer having to hold his serve to stay in the match, the heavens opened and play stopped for an hour.

Federer came back to take the set but was then faced with the same test in the fifth set when, during his service game, at deuce, play was suspended for a further half-hour.

Though Federer came back and won his serve with two aces, the additional delay took the match to a near-twilight conclusion. If poor light had forced that last set over to a new day, would the momentum have changed?

Three points

2) The political world

Apart from the fact that the contestants were of different nationalities, and that a Spaniard had not won Wimbledon in more than 40 years (the Spanish royal family had turned up to see that run broken, so no pressure!), there was little external back-story.

Zero points

3) The personal rivalry and quest

The Federer/Nadal rivalry had become one of the biggest and most compelling not just in tennis but in sports as a whole. One or the other had won 14 of the last 16 majors.

For more than a century, no two players had met in consecutive French and Wimbledon finals—these two were meeting for the third time. Nadal had won their last three matches, but Federer had won the last two Wimbledon encounters.

They had held the top two rankings for three years, and this could see them switch places for the first time.

Added to that, they looked and played like chalk and cheese, which made for a compelling rivalry and drew fans from all ages.

Yet off court, there was huge mutual respect, and both were perfect sporting role models. You might support one, but you would not dislike the other.

Three points

4) Unusual length of match or sets

This became the longest Wimbledon final in history. The four and three quarter hours of play ran out to almost seven hours with the rain delays, and did not conclude until 9:15 p.m. It contained two tie-breaks, and the final set was forced to a gut-wrenching 9-7. This was a marathon of effort, will, and concentration.

Three points

5) Number of break-points, deuces, and comebacks

When Federer went down two sets to love, the world all but came to a standstill. This ran counter to history, experience, and expectation.

So when he clawed his way back with one set, and then a second, both in tie-breaks, the nerves began to jangle. Even within the comeback set, Federer made a mini come-back in a near fatal tie-break.

At 5-2, Nadal served for the championship. Federer pulled back to serve for the set. Even then, he faced two further match points, but eventually took the set after an astonishing quarter-of-an-hour tie-breaker.

One measure of resilience is how a player responds to a break point. Both men faced 13 in this match. Nadal acquiesced just twice, Federer just four times. Many games went to deuce, but nearly all were defended.

Three points

6) Predictability of outcome

Before the match began, Federer was the favourite to win. After two sets, Nadal was the favourite. During the fourth set tie-break, Nadal was still the hot favourite.

After Federer pulled back to two sets apiece, and serving first, the advantage appeared to swing to him. However, as that fifth set progresses, Federer appeared to find it the harder to hold off his opponent. The momentum swung back to Nadal.

It was as close as a match could be, except that hindsight has since confirmed that a final set can be yet harder to call.

Two points

C. Great Tennis

1) Energy, movement, power, smart hitting or serving, moving the opponent around the court

Federer and Nadal are two of the fittest men in tennis, with both endurance over the long game and exceptional speed within long rallies. Both have great mobility side-to-side and back and forth. Both move their opponents all over the court and track down seemingly irretrievable balls.

In this match, the entire range of these skills was in full flow. Neither flagged, neither gave an inch in pushing shots all over court.

One upside to the rain delays, however, was the chance to recoup energy levels and assess tactics from the comfort of the locker room, unlike the continuous physical and mental demands of extended non-stop play.

Two points

2) Volume of improbable shots

In this match, Nadal certainly produced a higher volume of sliced cross-court winners than usual. Federer’s backhand proved to be remarkably resilient and he pulled off some near-impossible winners on that wing.

Occasionally, though, each produced winners that left even their opponent stumped. In the sixth game of the fourth set, with Federer serving at 40-15, Nadal unleashed a forehand of such ferocity that Federer was simply rooted to the spot. Two games later, Federer did exactly the same to Nadal.

With players of such extraordinary shot-making ability, the improbable becomes the norm: one ceases to be surprised at what either pulls out of the bag. However, measured against everyone else, the standard in this match was awesome.

Three points

3) Variety of play and use of strategy

The strategy of both men is, invariably, to attack. The form of that attack has adapted with each of their encounters and according to the surface.

Federer is designed for aforward moving, serve-and-volley game on grass. He is equally well equipped with the ground stokes to out-maneuvre at the back.

Nadal, with his ability to power down both wings from both wings—the ultimate ambidextrous player—is hard to pass and difficult to outrun.

His tactics were clear against Federer. Attack the backhand, especially with the left-handed swerving and high-bouncing serve. Nadal struck few aces but made many winners from this strategy.

Federer deployed the classic one-two punch to great effect, serving wide to one wing and pounding in to cut off the return with a killer volley. There were even times when he rushed the net after a second serve.

It was brave and brilliant play. His fingers were burnt on numerous occasions by flashing passes, but the tactics served him well, especially as the match progressed.

To counter the attack on his backhand, Federer also ran around to fire off many winning off-forehand drives—one of his trademark shots.

A less appealing feature of the Nadal strategy is slowing down play between points and games. Although rain delayed the start of the match, the protagonists waited for the coin toss, waited for play to start, and waited between points for the Nadal tics to take full rein.

This disrupted continuous play and was, unusually, reprimanded when serving at 5-4 for the second set. A 30-second preparation between serves attracted an official warning but had, of course, no impact on Nadal’s concentration and he served out the set.

He slowed things down yet more in the final set: highly questionable in the diminishing light. These negative tactics have to reduce the maximum score.

Two points

4) Proportion of winners to unforced errors

For a match of such length and intensity, there were astonishingly few unforced errors: just five double faults, for example. The most remarkable feature of the stats, however, was just how close the two men remained.

In the end, Nadal had the edge, by just five points: 209 to 205. At the end of the fourth set tie-break, they had each won 151 points: by 4-4 in the final set, 177 each. Out of those 413 points, only 12 percent were unforced errors by Federer and a mere 6.5 percent by Nadal.

Two points

5) Style of play: elegance, or brilliance, and virtuosity in shot-making and point construction

One of the outstanding qualities of this match was the point construction. Rallies were long, penetrating, and punishing from the very first point: a 14-stroke rally won with a zinging Nadal forehand.

Both men placed ball after ball into opposite corners of the court. In virtuosity, Nadal excelled in his backhand cross-court dipping drive. He also punished Federer repeatedly with his heavy top-spun loops to the backhand court. Of his classic bull-whip forehand, little needs to be said.

For Federer’s part, his volleys shone like a diamond. One in particular, off his backhand early in the fourth set, had the hallmark of Rod Laver or John Newcombe.

Other standouts were his backhand slice returns. While the outright winner to save match point in the final game of the match will live in the memory for years, It’s tempting to dock a point, once more, for how Nadal slowed the match’s pace when serving. But…

Three points

Grand Total: 29 points

Watching this match again after more than a year revealed a breathtaking competition of remarkably consistent quality and of huge emotional significance for both players. Its assessment, had it been carried out before this year’s final, may well have reaped a couple more points.

But hindsight is a wonderful thing! And personal taste, when it comes to judging great tennis, is very hard to eliminate. However, watching and annotating these two matches back-to-back, using the “CCG template”, has produced the following comparison.

2009: Roger Federer v. Andy Roddick

A. What's At Stake (records, history, and reputation)?

For Federer, this was potentially the deal-making match of his career. If he won, he would at last break the Pete Sampras record of 15 Grand Slam wins.

He would also win back the No. 1 world ranking and, on top of his French Open triumph a month before, it would confirm for most critics his status as the greatest ever to play the game.

All this followed a year during which those same critics had begun to question whether Federer would ever win another Slam.

That these records should be sealed at the scene of his first Slam triumph in 2003, where he had reached every final since and won five of them, would add to the moment.

To add a little icing to the cake, a win would bring up Federer’s longest ever winning streak, begun in Madrid two months earlier.

For Roddick, too, there was a lot to prove. When he had won the U.S. Open six years before, he looked set to win many more Slams, but his nemesis, Federer, beat him at his following three Slam opportunities.

Coming into this final, however, Roddick’s never-say-die character and one of the best work ethics on the tour had seen him take on a new coach and training regime, lose weight, and change his tactics.

He was making waves, not least coming into the final with a wonderful win over Andy Murray. To win Wimbledon, and against Federer no less, would crown his career.

Three points

B. The Dramatic Context

1) The natural world environment

There was little to trouble the Wimbledon waters in 2009, though ironically the new Centre Court roof sat waiting for the opportunity. A swirling breeze upset the balance between ends, and the only service breaks against Federer happened when serving into the wind at the Royal Box end. Conditions otherwise were generally fine.

Zero points

2) The political world

Much has been said in the last couple of years about the fading fortunes of American men’s tennis. Limited successes struggled to keep the game at the forefront of sporting news and sponsorship deals in the most important world market.

Suddenly, Roddick’s surge generated new interest, which has continued through the U.S. Series. His efforts seem to have sucked a number of other American men into his slipstream, too, so the Roddick “bounce” had a modest impact.

The final also happened to draw the most illustrious audience in living memory, with former record holders Bjorn Borg, Rod Laver, and, most significant of all, Pete Sampras. Tennis royalty had great expectations.

One point

3) The personal rivalry and quest

Federer and Roddick were joining forces in the very place they first met in a Grand Slam. In 2003, Federer beat Roddick in the semi-finals. They had met at Wimbledon twice since, both times in the final, both times ending in victory for Federer.

However, all of their Wimbledon matches were tightly contested, and all involved tie-breaks.

Their head-to-head is one of the longest on the tour: 20 before this year’s final. Though Federer led that head-to-head by a big margin, the detail of their encounters over the last year showed how close the rivalry was.

In Miami 2008, Roddick had won over a best-of-three quarter-final, a near mirror image of their match at the same stage in this year’s Miami Masters. In the 2009 Madrid Masters, the result was yet again a best-of-three tussle.

So they knew each other’s games very well. There was a distinct feeling on this occasion, however, that Roddick was just a bit fitter and more match-savvy, and this might be his best chance since 2003 for a win.

Two points

4) Unusual length of match or sets

After the 2008 epic final, few expected even more records to fall in 2009. But fall they did.

The match lasted almost four and a half unbroken hours, and at a refreshingly constant pace. The 77 games eclipsed the 62 of the 2008 match, and set a new record for a Grand Slam final. The final set of 30 games was also the longest in any Slam, and took over one and a half hours. The next longest, at 13-11, was over 50 years ago!

(As a point of interest, the longest ever match measured by games played was the first round Wimbledon match of 112 games between Pancho Gonzalez and Charlie Pasarell that prompted the introduction of the tie-break. That one lasted five hours and 20 minutes, but across two days.)

The Federer-Roddick match had other noteworthy stats, too. Federer’s 50 aces fell short of Ivo Karlovic’s Wimbledon record by just one. Roddick’s serve peaked at 143 mph. Federer’s at close to his personal best at 135 mph.

There were just three breaks of serve in the 77 games; Roddick’s only one being in that 77th game. Truly a match of remarkable records.

Three points

5) Number of break-points, deuces, and comebacks

The match threw up some pivotal moments that may well have changed the entire outcome. In the first set, Roddick saved four break points at 5-5, and with the surge of confidence gained from that, broke Federer in the very next game to take the set.

Had he been broken, the momentum may well have swung heavily to Federer and the match concluded in a more predictable score.

There was a similar moment at the end of the second set, this time with a sequence of break points against Federer in the tie-break. With Roddick up 6-2, Federer won a sequence of six points to win the set and draw the match level.

Had Federer gone two sets down, with the Roddick serve proving almost impossible to break, the match may well have gone to the American.

The third set tie-break became a mirror image of the first, this time with Federer up 5-1. He too was pulled back to 6-5, but sealed the set on his serve.

At two sets to one up, and with the momentum of the last two sets, many predicted that Federer would seal the match with a convincing fourth set. Roddick had other ideas and quickly broke the Federer serve in the fourth game.

Despite a heavy fall at 5-2, he dusted himself off and continued to hold his own serve to 6-3. His valiant comeback took the match to that epic final set.

Despite its length, there were just three break point opportunities in the entire 30 games. Federer was able to convert his single opportunity to win the Championship.

Three points

6) Predictability of outcome

The back-and-forth fortunes that followed each set made this a nail-biting contest from beginning to end. Until the very last game of the last set, it could have been won by either man as each held serve over and again.

It’s possible that the deciding factor came down to earlier matches. Roddick had beaten Murray in four tough sets in the semis, and Lleyton Hewitt in a five-setter in the quarters.

After 76 games against Federer, fatigue was surely a factor in the couple of mis-hits that gave his opponent the small opening he needed. Platitude it may be, but this really was a case where it was a pity anyone had to lose.

Three points

C. Great Tennis

1) Energy, movement, power, smart hitting or serving, moving the opponent around the court

Roddick had entered the 2009 tour lighter, faster and fitter than ever. Federer, too, was back to the fitness and mobility that had been blighted by glandular fever and back problems at various points during 2008.

Here were two athletes in their prime, and they needed to be to track down the side-to-side placing of the ball, and to react to the powerful serving from their opponent.

Both, too, attacked the net, reached for overheads, dove for volleys, and picked balls from their feet to make winning returns. Smart hitting was countered by smart defence which itself turned attack in the blink of an eye.

Accurate placement was matched by fast, flat, shot-making, in contrast with the top-spin dominated match of the previous year. The balls, from serve to closing volley or passing shot, simply spent less time between rackets.

On top of that, the pace between rallies was minimal. The first five games of the match took just 10 minutes. The fourth set, comprising nine games, just 32 minutes.

Three points

2) Volume of improbable shots

One of the outstanding features of this match was the quality of serving. That was to be expected from Roddick, who managed 27 aces and was broken just once. However, it was Federer’s tally of 50 that stunned both his opponent and the statisticians.

While players and spectators alike are used to the match-winning quality of the Federer serve, its accuracy, disguise, and spin, rarely had it performed to such devastating effect.

For the 50 aces, it would be fair to add 25 more that, though reached, were also essentially outright winners.

Outstanding shots came from all segments of the court. The close of the first set illustrates a handful. At 5-5, Roddick faced four break points (and only faced three more in the entire match). These were gained and defended by shots of remarkable depth, slice, angle, and change of pace.

One minute Federer gained a break chance with a blistering cross court forehand, the next he hit a near identical shot just millimetres wide. This happened no few than three times.

Having regained the upper hand, Roddick then broke Federer with the same tactics, pulling off one outright winner of a cross-court forehand that left Federer nowhere. The set, won 7-5, comprised just nine unforced errors in total, and 27 winners.

Three points

3) Variety of play and use of strategy

Both players came to the match with an attacking game plan, not surprising with the kind of service records that both possessed. But Roddick, with the help of new coach Larry Stefanki, demonstrated a little more patience during rallies, perhaps more confident in his fitness and variety of shot.

He had developed a new backhand drive, particularly effective down the line, and showed a new willingness to follow his serve to the net. Not only did he make 69 approaches, he also played some classy volleys when he got there.

On the serve, too, Roddick made some subtle changes. There were far more body serves, designed to upset the rhythm that Federer has previously developed in returning the Roddick serve. Perhaps this helped prevent Federer breaking him before the very end of the match.

Federer, always an offensive player, also chose to attack the net (59 times), even during Roddick service games.

This part of his game has matured during this year in particular, and he was able to put away huge overhead smashes along with touch volleys from around his feet. In between, he played the serve-volley one-two to perfection.

Federer’s backhand constantly delivered the classic grass-court tactic of the cross-court slice, as did Roddick’s.

The total package of shots allowed both men to swing the ball all over the court when required, but also to cut rallies short with crisp volleys. It was fascinating tennis, akin to chess in its probing variety and changes of pace.

Three points

4) Proportion of winners to unforced errors

This match of over four and a half hours and 77 games produced just 34 unforced errors from Roddick—under 8 percent—and 38 from Federer—just over 8 percent. Roddick, incidentally, did not record a single unforced error until the 11th game of the match.

The standard of serving has been shown above, but add to that just four double faults on either side: percentage serving of the highest order. There were just 12 break points in the entire match.

Three points

5) Style of play: elegance, or brilliance, and virtuosity in shot-making and point construction

In a match of such length, it’s near impossible to draw examples from the multitude available. Federer’s backhand cross-court off his feet to save the first break point in the second set tie-break is one. As if to emphasize his skill, he repeated the shot to win the set.

Roddick’s serving delivered the first point of that same tie-break with his fastest ace of the day. He started the third set, not browbeaten by the lost tie-breaker, with an ace, then a skimming short cross-court winner, and won the game with two strong and contrasting forehands—exhibiting the courage and strength that typified his play.

Over the entire match, however, the standout feature was the speed and crispness of the shot-making. The snap of flat drives inter-spliced with near-silent slice, followed by the touch of a perfect stop volley (Federer, as you ask, in the third game of sixth game of the third set) is a classicist’s dream.

The alternating sliced and top-spun drives (Federer again, in the very next point) is the modernist’s signature. A forehand volley followed by a winning backhand defensive volley (Roddick, in the same game at deuce), is a creative response to sustained attack. There were many, many such games.

It’s possible to add the contrast between the silky, elegant sweep of the Federer backhand with the new double-handed penetrating backhand of Roddick: or Federer out-serving Roddick with aces: or Roddick beating Federer in the serve-volley one-two winners.

Though physically punishing and energy sapping, it was tennis in which tactics, shot-making and mental concentration took centre stage over flamboyant power play. Suffice to say,

Three points

Grand Total: 30 points

The different subjective views of these two matches by Clarabella and Claudia were the prompt for devising a more objective template.

Now it’s over to you, Bleacher Creatures. How do you think these two matches compare? And what do you think of the criteria we’ve used to measure the two?

Let the argument begin.


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