Rafael Nadal‘s win over Roger Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final proved to be more than an instant classic, a book, a documentary. It, more than any of their other 39 matches, became an enduring snapshot of a shift atop tennis.
Nadal prevailed 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7 in 4 hours, 48 minutes, dropping to a flashbub-lit Centre Court lawn at 9:16 p.m. local time. The match is part of NBCSN’s Breakfast at Wimbledon programming on Tuesday night.
“Compared to the way things were for years,” Nadal said in the 2018 film, “Strokes of Genius,” “history was now being rewritten.”
Before that match, Nadal had won four Grand Slams — all at the French Open, though he had said since childhood that Wimbledon was his crown jewel. Before that match, Federer never lost a Grand Slam final outside of the French Open, including capturing the previous five Wimbledons (and the last two against Nadal in the final).
Federer had been No. 1 in the world since February 2004. In a three-month stretch in mid-2008, Nadal spanked Federer in the French Open final (6-1, 6-3, 6-0), ended Federer’s Open Era record 65-match win streak on grass and won an Olympic singles title, which remains the hole in Federer’s resume.
Wimbledon stung the most.
“In the moment itself, I was like, oh my god, this is the worst day of my life,” Federer said in “Strokes of Genius.” “It was really like maybe three, four, five, six, seven weeks after the match that I really started to feel the magnitude of the match.
“I had to embrace the idea of a rival. In the beginning, I didn’t want to have one. Then I eventually realized there’s something to get out of this situation, so I might have to adjust my game a little bit.”
After Nadal won their 2009 Australian Open final duel — Federer memorably lamenting, “God, it’s killing me,” in his tearful runner-up speech — the Spaniard had five straight victories in the rivalry, spanning all three surfaces. He went up 13-6 in their head-to-head.
Federer led the Grand Slam titles race — 13-6 — but Nadal was five years younger. At the same age, Federer had four fewer Slams than Nadal.
“The official changing of the guard,” NBC Sports analyst John McEnroe said after Nadal’s win on the 2008 Wimbledon broadcast. “He’s officially taken over the mantle of the best player in the world.”
Federer would get it back. He finally prevailed in Paris in 2009 (after Nadal was stunned by Robin Soderling), then returned to No. 1 after winning 2009 Wimbledon. Nadal missed defending his title due to knee problems.
Nadal, Federer and Novak Djokovic spent the 2010s trading Slams and the No. 1 ranking, each enduring lulls (Federer’s the most concerning).
After the most recent Slam, the Australian Open last January, the career Grand Slam titles tally: Federer 20, Nadal 19, Djokovic 17. The greatest-ever discussion sways with every Slam, a debate that began in earnest in 2008.
“If this doesn’t spark interest in our great sport,” McEnroe said on that Wimbledon broadcast, “I don’t know what will.”
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