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Strokes Of Genius - The Greatest Match Ever Played


Nadal and Federer© Getty Images

In his new book "Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal and the Greatest Tennis Match Ever Played," Sports Illustrated tennis writer Jon Wertheim uses the 2008 Wimbledon final to reflect on a defining sporting event, two exceptional athletes, and the state of the sport. The following excerpt takes the reader through the final two games.

The tournament supervisors had made the decision that only two more games could be played before the match would have to be postponed on account of darkness. Though this wasn’t conveyed to the players, intuitively they both sensed it. In the photographers’ pit behind the court, dozens of shooters changed lenses and attached devices to their cameras, trying to compensate for the fading light.

Despite the progressing dusk, Nadal picked up Federer’s serves, returning every offering deep in the court. After winning two of the first three points, Nadal was obliged to hit a backhand a good two yards behind the baseline. Using his dominant right hand to guide the ball, he muscled a crosscourt winner, a shot most players wouldn’t have had the audacity to attempt, much less stick. In the NBC commentary booth behind the baseline, John McEnroe stood up and mimicked the shot as he spoke.

Unbowed, Federer squeezed off his twenty-fifth ace and then won a point when Nadal slipped on a wet patch of grass. Federer saved still another break point with a masterful serve to the corner. And then, inexplicably, he lapsed. On an inside-in forehand—the very stroke he had executed so well for the past three sets—Federer went for a winner straight up the line, over the high point of the net. It was still another example of Nadal’s pressure causing an opponent to go for broke. Federer mistimed the bounce and batted the ball into the net.

On Nadal’s fourth break point of the game, Federer positioned himself to hit a forehand that bounced near the “T” of the service line, in the dead center of the court. This may be the single most elemental shot in tennis, the stroke and distance most teaching pros use when instructing beginners. Splaying his legs and taking a bigger cut at the ball than the situation dictated, Federer smacked the shot a few inches beyond the baseline. Federer appeared to have blurted out, “Nie,” the German word for “never,” as the ball sailed long. In Nadal’s box, his entourage formed a group hug. Except for Uncle Toni, who retreated alone to the aisle, too nervous for human interaction. 8-7.

Head down, Federer walked disconsolately to his chair. He sipped from his Evian bottle, and tossed the bottle over his shoulder in frustration, but not before first screwing on the cap. (Even his mini-tantrums are considerate in their way.) Nadal swigged from his Evian bottle, trying “not to think about anything too much.” Straining to be heard over the crowd roar, Maria announced the score and added a pertinent piece of information before the game began. “New balls, please.”

There was one game left to play—victory or darkness—and Nadal would have the advantage of playing with fresh balls. He popped out of his chair, jack-in-the-box-like, and jogged to the baseline before serving for the Wimbledon title. On the first point, the new ball trampolined off the polyester strings of Nadal’s racket and his nervous forehand sailed long. In this, the sixty-second game of the match, it was just his twenty-seventh unforced error.

Nadal then made an eloquent statement about both his reservoir of courage and his (underrated) tactical savvy. For the first time in the entire match he serve-and-volleyed. After spinning a serve (where else?) deep to Federer’s backhand, Nadal followed his forward momentum. Federer’s return wafted in the air, presenting Nadal with the simplest forehand volley. It was the perfect strategy at the perfect time. This wasn’t just a testament to Nadal’s guts; it was testament to his tennis cortex too, a sharp rejoinder to the critics who dismiss him as “brutal” and “machine-like.” He had lost the previous point from the baseline, so he figured he’d try something new.

15-15. As if awakened to the virtues of net play, Nadal won the next point at the net as well, driving Federer off the court and then punching away another forehand volley. 30-15. Nadal then approached the net again. This third time, Federer ripped a passing shot that Nadal could only stab into the air and beyond the baseline. Still, two out of three ain’t bad. 30-30.

As if the match needed still more complications, a light began to flicker behind the court, a malfunctioning panel on the bottom of the scoreboard as it turned out. Already annoyed by all the ambient imperfection—the rain delays, the diminishing light, the boisterous crowd—Federer shook his head in frustration and pointed out the distracting light to Pascal Maria. The umpire appeared confused but, recognizing that this was not the time for protracted discourse, leaned into the microphone. “Please don’t use cameras with flashes.”

Nadal played conservatively and coaxed a backhand error from Federer. It was 40-30, Championship Point. Toni Nadal rose from his seat and stood in the aisle next to his brother, Sebastian. Behind the baseline, Bjorn Borg sat erect. In Memphis, Tennessee, Diane Morales, the otherwise well-adjusted high school Spanish teacher who turned into the Nadal sorceress, yelled to her daughter. Still convinced that her viewing was bringing Nadal bad luck, she’d been surreptitiously checking the live scores on line. “It’s Rafa!” she shrieked loud enough to be heard in eastern Arkansas, as she scrambled to turn on the TV. “He’s at match point!”

The court may have appeared reasonably well-lit on television, but this was a distortion; in reality it might as well have been illuminated with toy flashlights. Yet when Nadal, on his third championship point, spun still another serve to his backhand, Federer, as if wearing night-vision goggles, saw the ball perfectly. He turned and flicked a delicate, sharply-angled backhand crosscourt for a winner. In retrospect, there was something terribly poignant about this shot. It wasn’t a cold-cocked, nothing-to-lose blast. It was less a hit than a massage. It was one last flourish, one last dash of artistry, one last display of Soft Power, before the mighty king was deposed.

If Federer had just shown off his gift for shotmaking, Nadal then displayed his gift of fearlessness. Unbothered by losing his third match point, he maintained his ritual and placed a 115-mph serve. Federer, logically, guessed backhand. But Nadal won still another tactical battle, painting the forehand corner of the box, out of reach. Championship Point No. 4.

Blocking out the chorus of “Come on, Rafa,” Nadal wiped his face, bounced the ball seven times, and hit a cautious first serve followed by a cautious backhand. The ball landed barely behind the service line, but took a tricky bounce, darting to the right. Nothing drastic, but it was enough to throw off Federer’s timing. And it was a reminder that for all the virtues that make up a seminal sporting event, there is also a component of luck.

Federer swung forcefully but awkwardly, his arms moving forward while his body weight jerked laterally. As ever, he stared at the ball as it left his strings. The shot was impeded by the top of the net and died on his own side of the court. 9-7.

The ball hadn’t come to a full rest when Nadal dropped to the grass and fell flat on his back, as if he had been shot. He had won Wimbledon. The fans rose as one, cheering hysterically at the final scene of a drama that had lasted four hours and forty-eight minutes. Television commentators stayed silent, letting the images speak for themselves. The Nadal contingent hugged. The message board traffic exploded.

One final touch from the chair umpire, Pascal Maria. As Nadal rolled on the ground, Maria said firmly, “Game, set, and match. Rafael Nadal. Six-four, six-four, six-seven, six-seven, nine-seven.” It was superfluous, and it was pitch perfect.

It was 9:16 at night when the scoreboard finally froze.

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