AS A rule, you use sports superlatives at your peril. But you've found safe harbor declaring the 2008 Wimbledon men's final "the greatest tennis match ever played." When Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal met on Centre Court that Sunday afternoon (and evening and night) on July 6, it marked the rare sporting event that lived up to the considerable hype—and then eclipsed it entirely.
Federer was 26, Nadal 22. And already, theirs had become an alpha sports rivalry, a study in clashing styles. Righty versus lefty. Offense versus defense. Classic technique versus ultramodern. No. 1 versus No. 2. Middle European restraint and quiet meticulousness versus Iberian bravado and passion. Dignified power versus unapologetic, whomping brutality.
The tennis salon's comparison of Federer's evolved beauty to Nadal's Neanderthal drudge was—and remains—as unfair as it is crass. But accepting the premise that they're both artists, they're from decidedly different schools. Federer is a delicate, brush-stroking Impressionist. Nadal is a dogged, freewheeling abstract Expressionist.
Until that momentous day, the two had an unspoken custody agreement. Nadal owned the clay: He had just beaten Federer, yet again, in the French Open final that had been played four weeks before. Federer owned the grass: He had beaten Nadal in the 2006 and 2007 Wimbledon final. But by Wimbledon 2008, all bets were off.
Marrying power and accuracy, Nadal won the first two sets. Federer then, inevitably, awoke, and won the next two sets in tiebreaks, staving off match points, and betraying a willingness to fight Nadal that hadn't always been in evidence. (Just four Sundays earlier at Roland Garros, Nadal had humiliated Federer 6--1, 6--3, 6--0.)
This was the last match held at the All England Club before the unveiling of the Centre roof made playing under the lights an option. As the match—already delayed twice for rain for nearly two hours—headed to a climactic fifth set, daylight diminished, adding to the cinematic quality. At 7--7, and in near darkness, Nadal picked up Federer's serves, returning almost every offering deep in the court, and breaking serve to go up 8--7. Federer played gamely to the end, but finally a forehand hit the net and died in the grass. It was 9:15 p.m. when, after four hours and 48 minutes of dazzling theater, Nadal had defeated Federer 6--4, 6--4, 6--7, 6--7, 9--7.
While the 2008 Wimbledon final may have marked the apotheosis of the Federer-Nadal rivalry, but this was not Ali smashing Frazier, once and for all. Federer and Nadal have played each other 20 more times since (Nadal has won 11) and, between them, have won 20 more major singles titles.
And, astonishingly, Nadal and Federer—now both into their 30s—still rule the roost. When Wimbledon starts on July 2, outside London, they come in ranked 1--2. They have taken turns winning each of the last six majors. Federer is the defending champ at the All England Club. Nadal comes in after his ritual run of the place at the French Open. Together they have distanced themselves from the other contenders in the G.O.A.T. pasture.
As they have aged, they have come to realize that each is better because of the existence of the other. The rivalry has catalyzed their careers and sustained their interest. In a tacit acknowledgement of this fact, earlier this year both agreed to be interviewed for a forthcoming documentary on their many battles, Strokes of Genius, never mind that they are still vying for primacy.
Federer conceded that it took him time to warm to the concept of being bracketed with another player. "I was No. 1 in the world for the first time in 2004, I didn't want to have a rival," he says in the film. "I just wanted to be the best and there was the rest basically ... then eventually I realized well, there's something good to take out of these situations. So, maybe I have to adjust my game a little bit. I don't like to do that per se, but why not? Let's go."
Nadal makes the admission that he wishes he had Federer's easy grace. "I do admire Federer's style and those who don't, either they don't know about tennis, or even if you're someone else's fan, need to be able to recognize excellence and Federer is excellent in every sense," Nadal says. "I think that I play in a more intense manner than Federer and he plays in a more elegant and aggressive way, always supported by a drive and a serve that is hard to stop."
They've ascended the same mountain from different sides and have come to conclude that if they are rivals, yoked together forever, so too are they kindred spirits. "We are so very different in how we approach things," says Federer. "Yet if you scratch underneath the surface, you realize that we're probably quite similar."
Cheer like hell for Federer. Cheer like hell for Nadal. But—rare, if not unique, among rivalries—you're well within your rights to cheer like hell for them both.
The feature-length documentary Strokes of Genius will air on the BBC and on Tennis Channel on July 1 at 8 p.m. ET.
A LIFE REMEMBERED
FACES IN THE CROWD