Tennis Prose



Legends Comment On Classic


The day-long dramatic duel waged on into near-darkness through multiple rain delays into the record books as the longest men’s final in Wimbledon history.

In the end, Rafael Nadal endured the rain and a remarkably resilient reigning champion Roger Federer and took his shot at history on the rise ripping yet another ferocious forehand and realizing his dream lying flat on his back as a Centre Court stadium full of flashbulbs lit up the sky.

In a stirring performance of power, perseverance and poise in the face of pulsating pressure, clay-court king Nadal edged a resilient Federer, who fought off three championship points, to dethrone the five-time defending champion with a 6-4, 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-7(8), 9-7 triumph in the 2008 Wimbledon final that spanned a record four hours, 48 minutes and will remain embedded in the minds of many as a match for the ages

“I think I have just witnessed the greatest match I have ever seen,” said NBC analyst John McEnroe immediately after the match. “The drama, the quality and the way it ended when it seemed as though no more tennis could possibly be played was remarkable, to put it mildly. I am just happy that I was able to be part of it in just a small way.”

We polled a panel of Hall of Famers: four-time Grand Slam champion Jim Courier, Alex Olmedo, who beat Rod Laver to win the 1959 Wimbledon championship, Fred Stolle, the French and U.S. champion and a three-time Wimbledon finalist from 1963-65, who called the match for Australian television, and Tony Trabert,who produced one of the most sensational single seasons of any American man in history in 1955 when he swept three of the four singles Slams — Wimbledon, Roland Garros and the U.S. Championship — to secure the top spot.

Combined they have played and watched some of the most memorable matches in the history of tennis.

Here’s what they have to say about the match many believe is one for the ages:

Is the Nadal-Federer final the best match in history?
Jim Courier:
“Roger and Rafa turned this into most likely the most compelling men’s match we’ll ever see. You had the best two players in the world going toe to toe for nearly five hours of play for the biggest prize of them all, with records and other implications on the line. If you’re like me this match left you breathless as a spectator and your heart beating faster than theirs in all likelihood at that moment. It was a thrill ride. These guys are the perfect rivals.”

Tony Trabert: “It might very well be the best match I have ever seen. Just the quality of play, the closeness of it, Federer coming back from two sets down to be within two points of winning the match and then all of a sudden he’s not, the fact this was the World No. 1 against the World No. 2, the drama throughout and of course the great rivalry between Federer and Nadal. It’s always difficult to compare different eras because you’re talking about different equipment, different surfaces and just different styles of play. But I have to tell you: when you factor in all those elements we’ve discussed, I have to say this might very well be the best match I’ve ever seen.”

Fred Stolle: “I would put this match on a higher level than Borg-McEnroe and obviously that was a great, great match. But I can tell you I absolutely think this is the best match I’ve ever seen at Wimbledon and I’ve been doing it (commentary) 30 years. Everyone remembers the Borg-McEnroe 18-16 tie breaker in the fourth-set and when the Federer-Nadal fourth-set tie breaker was really heating up and got to 6-all I was looking at Borgie sitting there in the front row and I was wondering how he was feeling and what he was thinking. As you know, Borgie doesn’t watch a lot of tennis in person and I said to Newk ‘I wonder if Borgie is thinking back to the fourth-set tie break from the 1980 final and wondering if this one will last as long?’ This Federer-Nadal match is one people will remember and talk about for years and years to come. I think the quality of tennis overall was just unbelievable. It was phenomenal tennis from start to finish and after more than four hours they were still playing an an incredibly high level of tennis whereas to me Borg-McEnroe, which was a tremendous match too, was not the sustained high quality because remember in the first set of that 1980 final Mac beat Borgie really badly in the first set and in the fifth Mac did not have the chances on Borgie’s serve whereas both Federer and Nadal had chances in the fifth. In the end the difference is Nadal — every time he goes on the grass court — he learns something and every match he plays on grass he gets better. If you go back to last year’s Wimbledon and compare it to this year you see how much Nadal has improved, particularly serving out wide. He served out wide a lot better this year and that was a key for him because remember he only lost serve once in five sets and four hours, 48 minutes of play, which is incredible.”

Alex Olmedo: “I think it was certainly one of the greatest matches I’ve ever seen in my life. When you look at the score and how Federer fought hard to come all the way back from two sets to none and then saved the match points in the fourth-set tiebreaker to win it, then Nadal has to come back after that disappointment of losing the fourth set to win, it was increidble tennis. The match was great, no doubt one of the greatest of all time.”

How does Federer-Nadal compare to the previous gold standard of finals: the 1980 Borg-McEnroe final?

Alex Olmedo: “Yes, I would say it was more exciting then Borg-McEnroe, which was a classic too. If you watched this match, you saw great athleticism, great points, great ground strokes and two fighters. It had everything you want to see and it had it for five sets and more than four hours.”

Tony Trabert: “Borg-McEnroe is certainly one of the greatest matches of all time, but I believe Federer-Nadal was a higher-quality match overall. Now, people say the clash of styles of Borg-McEnroe is more of the classic contrast because you have the serve and volleyer in McEnroe against the baseliner Borg though Borg did come in too at Wimbledon and I agree with that to a certain extent — those contrasting styles make for such a compelling match. But don’t forget: it’s different type of grass now and it is harder to come in on this grass. On the grass we played on back then you couldn’t serve and stay back. You really had to come in because the bounces weren’t as true. Also, the equipment is different today and with the string technology you can stay back and hit the passing shots from well behind the baseline. Nadal hit some astounding passes in the final. These guys made some incredible gets off very deep shots while on the run. It was very high-quality tennis and the rallies were longer than the typical rallies in Borg-McEnroe, but obviously both were tremendous matches and will both be remembered in the history of the game.”

Where do you rank the Federer-Nadal rivalry in tennis history compared to other great rivalries like Hoad-Trabert, Hoad-Gonzalez, Laver-Rosewall, Borg-Connors, Borg-McEnroe, Agassi-Sampras?

Fred Stolle: “It’s got to be up there at the top. You have two great, great players who own two center courts. Remember, Nadal has never lost at the French Open: he’s won four straight French Opens and beat Federer in three straight French Opens and Federer had won five straight Wimbledons and faced Nadal for the third straight Wimbledon final. Between them these two guys own two of the most important center courts in our sport. That alone speaks for itself and tells you how special this rivalry is because as great as McEnroe-Borg was as a rivalry McEnroe wasn’t playing Borg in the French Open final and then again in the Wimbledon final the way these two have met which makes that final on Sunday even more dramatic and meaningful because of the previous matches. You’ve got a guy like Nadal who has been No. 2 over 234 weeks and a long-time No. 1 in Federer and you can’t say that about Borg-McEnroe. I think this is the biggest rivalry.”

Alex Olmedo:“This is one of the greatest rivalries ever. Personally, I always loved the Hoad-Gonzalez rivalry. Those two had great matches. I used to watch them and I tell you people would stand up ready to clap only to see Hoadie or Gonzalez run down the shot and return it and then the people would sit down because the rally would keep going! Federer and Nadal like Hoadie and Gonzalez are great athletes and can get to so many balls. Today, the players just don’t volley as much so there is not the same level of variety in today’s game. It’s a lot more topspin and baseline play today so I liked the Hoad-Gonzalez rivalry because you saw the game played with variety and shots hit from all over the court and they were doing it with smaller, heavier wood racquets.”

Tony Trabert: “They’ve already played in more Grand Slam finals than any of the other rivalries and Nadal is 22 and Federer will be 27 next month so this is the perfect rivalry in my opinion and one that I hope and believe we will be seeing more of in the future. You have to put this rivalry right at the very top in terms of Grand Slam rivalries simply because of their quality of play and the fact they have faced each other so many times in major finals. The other thing I really appreciate about this rivalry is both Nadal and Federer are wonderful guys, they represent themselves and tennis with so much class and sportsmanship and were both very gracious to one another after the match. They are truly tremendous representatives for our sport.”

If you were coaching Federer how would you advise him to play Nadal?

Fred Stolle: “This year he serve-and-volleyed a bit more in the tournament than last year and I think he has to continue to do that. Yes, the grass has changed and it’s tougher to do, but you can still serve and volley. The kid that won the juniors was serving and volleying. Look at how Jo-Willie Tsonga beat Nadal in Melbourne: he served out wide to the backhand on the deuce court then teed off on the forehand and got to net quickly. Federer had his best success hitting his forehand into Nadal’s forehand because Nadal is looking for the backhand and likes to step around to hit the forehand. I think he needs to use his slice more and I think he needs to make a technical change on that side. I think he starts out too high on his backhand back swing on the slice and consequently he doesn’t get enough bite on the ball and you know what Rafa does to the short ball. There were times Federer elected to come over the ball on the backhand side where I felt he would have done better to slice it. When he comes over the ball and leaves it short then he gets lost in the rally and Nadal just tees off. The other thing we (John Newcombe, Fred’s broadcast partner) noticed was when Federer came to the net he almost never came in a hurry. He has got to learn when he comes in to come in with urgency! You come in against Nadal you better come in fast and close that net hard and get two meters closer. Contrary to what most people think, we don’t think Federer is a great volleyer. Now when I saw that this is nit picky a little bit: he’s a good volleyer, but he’s not a great volleyer because he doesn’t consistently get behind the flight of the ball. He tends to bring the racquet face down and sometimes looks to where he’s hitting and when you’re volleying against someone who can dip the ball with that much spin as Nadal you must get that racquet behind the flight of the ball. He’s got to practice that volley and approach more. Part of that is he doesn’t volley enough leading up to Wimbledon and then you just can’t go turn on your volley at Wimbledon. He got tentative coming in and he didn’t close net fast enough, but look I’m being a bit nit-picky here: the guy played an unbelievable tournament and a classic match.”

Alex Olmedo: “He has to relax a little bit more and be a bit more patient on the break points. He only broke serve once and I think part of that is Nadal is such a great player on the big points and he’s so consistent, but also Federer gets a little bit over anxious against Nadal. He also needs to step in when he gets the chance right off the return. Fred is right about the volley. The whole idea of net play is to hit the volley above the height of the net — don’t let the ball come down! Federer, in many cases, was hitting the volleys too low down around his knees and you can’t do that against Nadal, he is too good. He was a little bit late getting to the net. When he approaches he should use the slice more because the top spin backhand sits up and Nadal can drive it. Remember that fantastic running forehand pass Nadal hit it the fourth set? Federer’s approach has to be better and if you can catch the ball on the rise with slice deep and get tighter to the net that would help. He needs to punch the volley. You don’t take a swing at the volley, you punch it, and he was sometimes taking too big a swing on the volley, but look Nadal puts so much pressure on you because he hits so great on the run.”

Tony Trabert: “He’s got to play the break points better. He put himself in position to break — he had 13 break points, but only broke once. Part of that is he sometimes looks like he feels he has to hit a winner or hit the perfect shot, but Nadal is human, he doesn’t miss often but he can miss once in a while. So I think he can be a bit more patient on those break points.”

Who is the best player in the world now?

Tony Trabert: “To me that is still a tough call because had Nadal beat him 4-4-4 after the thumping he gave him in Paris you’d absolutely have to say Nadal and Nadal has won two of the three majors this year, but Federer is still No. 1 in the rankings and is still the U.S. Open champion. According to the ranking he is still No. 1 though obviously the way Rafa has played he has a strong case (for the No. 1 ranking). It will be interesting to me to see how Roger responds at the U.S. Open. That’s the great thing about this rivalry: that you look forward to the next match”

Fred Stolle: “At the moment you gotta think Nadal is the best in the world. The rules state the points are on a 52-week basis so because of the rules Federer is still No. 1, but as Manolo Santana said he doesn’t take any notice of the ATP rankings. How absurd that someone who won the French Open and Wimbledon back to back is No. 2 so he is No. 2 in the rankings but if you’re looking for the player of the year then it has got to be Nadal. He’s won two Grand Slams and honestly unless he breaks a leg you’ve got to say he is the best.”

What will you remember most about this match?

Tony Trabert: “It will always be remembered as one of the greatest matches of all time. The drama, the intensity and the level of play was extraordinary. They both fought so hard for so long and really gave it all they had. They gave you all they had to give and the result is a match I will always remember and I believe tennis fans everywhere will always remember this one. And the fact that they both play so hard and yet still respect each other so much. That’s very special to see at this level. It is a match that does so much for tennis all over the world.”

Fred Stolle: “That we’re so lucky to have both Federer and Nadal at the top of tennis because of what they bring to the game in their quality of play, their commitment and the pure class they show in winning and losing. I thought the dad (Robert Federer) showed great class after the match in giving both those boys a well-deserved standing ovation. Stop and think about what Nadal did this past month: he gave Federer one of his worst losses in the French Open final, he got on the train and came over to London with just a couple of days to practice on grass and then he played Queen’s Club and beat Karlovic, Roddick and Djokovic to win his first grass-court title. Then he plays phenomenal tennis to beat the five-time defending champion in the greatest match I’ve seen there and you have to think the guy must be completely buggered after all that, but he gets on the plane and flies to Stuttgart so he can personally tell the tournament organizers and press that he needs to withdraw. Now how many guys in the world do you think would do what Nadal did? For Federer it was a heart-breaking loss and he handled himself so well and showed his character. I don’t know if you picked this up on TV back in the States, but Nadal went outside and signed autographs for 15 minutes after that match. You could say the rain saved Federer a bit in that Nadal might have won in straight sets, but you saw the character of Federer that when he came back he fought with everything he had and in fact when he got it into a fifth many former players I spoke to there to a man thought Federer would win. These two guys are just a level above in what they bring to the sport.”

All the best,
Richard Pagliaro

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