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Original Issue

Happy Returns

Revisiting a Wimbledon instant classic

Even before it ended, the 2008 Wimbledon final was being declared the greatest tennis match of all time, a designation assigned (and not since challenged) by aficionados due to the level at which it was played, the closeness of the competition, the history between the players and, not least, the stakes. At 4--4 in the fifth set, Wimbledon's demure king, Roger Federer (he'd won the tournament five straight times), and his driven, soon-to-be usurper Rafael Nadal (he'd beaten Federer in the French Open four weeks earlier) had each won 177 of the 354 points played. By then, as SI senior writer L. Jon Wertheim writes in Strokes of Genius, "all those Pimm's-drinking patricians [in the stands at Centre Court] were going apes--t."

From the first point, a 14-stroke exchange won by Nadal with a savage forehand that, "laced with his singular spin ..., hooked and descended in the corner of the singles court," Wertheim unfurls a precise re-creation of the match. He also takes side trips, discoursing on, among other things, the chair umpire, Wimbledon's switch to ryegrass, lefties in sports, secrets to proper hydration and Nadal's habit of tugging on the rear of his shorts. There are also brief sketches of each player. The Majorca-born Nadal's early onset ambition—at 12 he told 1998 French Open champion Carlos Moya that he had designs on a career that was "more" than Moya's—is set against Federer's unhurried, almost accidental drift into Switzerland's tennis elite.

The teenaged Federer was, however, given to spectacular racket-smashing tantrums, outbursts that, as Wertheim observes, were not aimed at opponents or officials but were "directed inward." While the page count of Strokes is split evenly between the protagonists, Federer, an emperor on the verge of calamity (think Caesar), emerges as the more compelling figure. His multilayered game befits his complex, deeply human nature, and he becomes the real reason to follow this long and winding Wimbledon final to its gripping climax.


Strokes of Genius By L. Jon Wertheim (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)