As we count down to the undisputed top dogs on this list, we first welcome the Wimbledon 2007 final. This epic smasher of a match has wrestled itself out of the grip of the doubters and has nestled cosily into its number 3 position on our list, between the no. 4 Agassi versus Rafter 2000 Wimbledon tussle and.
When talking about this mammoth-like game, it’s hard for any tennis devotee not to salivate with their mouth wide open. So, before I discuss this match, let’s step into the tennis time machine and dare to dream out loud, once more.
The year was 2007. A year which saw the bursting of the housing bubble leading to the global mortgage crisis, Radiohead releasing their infamous In Rainbows album solely online so fans could decide for themselves how much they wanted to pay for it, and Steve Jobs introducing the very first iPhone, catapulting the smartphone tech-community into an overdrive spiral of a new brave world.
Luckily, next to real hardships and social media hype, there were sporting heroes to adore aplenty. We had yet to learn how to mimic Usain Bolt’s ‘Lightning Bolt’ celebration, but we were already blessed with the greatest rivalry sports had to offer in the new millennium: The Fedal Showdown!
A real sporting life antagonism palpable for the watching world almost every few months of the year, fans were treated to levels of tennis so captivating that they knew they had to cherish and cling on to every moment when this pair stepped on the court.
And as they did so before every warm-up during Wimbledon, even their fashion statements couldn’t be any clearer. Federer, wearing the traditional nostalgic Wimbledon attire with long trousers and a matching blazer and Nadal, exuding the street fighter spirit with long shorts and a sleeveless shirt, represented establishment versus anti-establishment. Nowadays, both Federer and Nadal enter the arena looking more like the other player. I tell ya, those were the days alright!
For Federer, a disconcerting trend had set in: Rafael Nadal was improving his grass-court game, and he was improving fast. They had contested the Wimbledon final the year before – it is worth mentioning that many tennis pundits saw Nadal’s 2006 run to the final as a fluke – but it became clear in 2007 that the Spanish Bull was figuring out his grass-court game at an alarming rate, notching up notable upgrades, from his already potent serve to the enhanced crispness in his volleys. Federer was forewarned!
Amidst all the accolades and stark contrasts between the two hall of famers, there was one interesting fact that Federer and Nadal had in common on that rare sunny English afternoon on the 8th of July 2007: both men were chasing Björn Borg’s records, records that had stood firm for nearly three decades. Federer was going for his 5th straight Wimbledon crown, which would equal Borg’s impressive run, while Nadal sought a rare Roland Garros/Wimbledon double, a feat that only the ‘Ice Man’ from Sweden had attained in his heyday on three consecutive occasions. Now Borg was watching from the Royal Box, already resigned to the fact that these flagbearers of the modern game were in the process of tearing at least one of his records to pieces.
The tables were set! The racquets strung! History was on the line! As the first Federer ball toss silenced the packed crowd on the Centre Court of Wimbledon, anxiously welcoming the drama that was sure to unfold, Federer and Nadal were ready to deliver on the insurmountable expectations, and then some.
Boom! Ace down the T. “15-0 Federer”, chair umpire Carlos Ramos uttered. The usually restrained English audience roared with excitement. Ice Man Borg calmly nodded in approval.
Federer would hold to 30 in his opening service game. Nadal was the one put on his back heels from the get-go. In the first service game of the 2nd seed, Federer produced his first magical spell of the encounter: a running backhand flicker at the net up the line after Nadal was guilty of pushing his forehand volley. Nadal spun his web in the next point, forcing Federer to play his forehand long. Federer would capitalize on his third break chance attempt when Nadal inexcusably smashed his finishing shot low in the net. Federer was up 2-0.
The next game saw Federer getting into the groove: an ace, a lucky net cord and a backhand crosscourt winner as loosely struck as you like. Shades of the opening set of the final the year before, in which he was treated to a Federer bagel, began to eclipse Nadal’s unwavering self-belief. He had to get himself on the scoreboard quickly. Due to his nasty sliding lefty second serve and court coverage, he pegged one game back to trail 3-1.
And this is where the match truly began to blossom into a real encounter. Federer, from 30-0 up, saw multiple passing shots whiz by, leaving him stranded at the net. He saved one break point with an ace, but Nadal wasn’t going to be denied, as the Spaniard on the full stretch somehow managed to guide the ball up the line. Federer, at full stretch himself, could only frame his shot. As he so often does, Nadal greeted the break back with a little sprint to his chair. Game on!
A tiebreaker was going to decide the opening salvo. The pair traded mini-breaks. Federer positioned himself to execute his bread and butter inside out forehand to wrap up the set at 6-5. He missed. Both players produced backhand errors in the next two points before Federer made the difference courtesy of his instinct to move forward as he correctly interpreted Nadal’s backswing as a preparation for his slice shot. The natural grass court instincts of Federer proved to be the difference as he put away the high volley and the first set. Again, the lucky spectators on Centre Court were out of their seat, this time to answer Federer’s animated yell of jubilation.
Both players began showing commanding sovereignty on their own service games. A blockbuster game-clinching rally at two all 40-30 on the Nadal serve meant the point constructions were starting to favour the Spaniard. In the next game, Federer was up against it in his own service game. He stepped up a gear with consecutive aces to snuff out Rafa’s break chances. He would go on to hold just when it looked like the Spaniard was ready to break the infamous Federer serve. The four-time champion had responded – ‘Not yet!’
But the King of Grass was in trouble again in the tenth game, serving at 4-5 down and 15-15. Federer hit a deep approach shot, which sent Nadal falling onto his behind while retrieving and pulling off the pass that brushed off the sideline. It laid the foundation for Nadal to level the match. Federer unwisely went back at Nadal on his own approach, right into Nadal’s wheelhouse, as the Spaniard munched on the backhand pass that flew just by a lunging Federer. Nadal showed his fiery determination, clenching both fists as he screamed in delight to his box. 1 set apiece.
The level of play got even more riveting in the third. Proceedings went on serve right up until the second tiebreaker of the encounter. But before it hit crunch time, the pair had crafted dozens of otherworldly points that were just dripping with excellent shot-making. Nadal concocted an on-the-run diagonal backhand flick pass that even Federer couldn’t believe, two teasing inside out fake forehand drop shots, an on-the-run death charge defensive forehand hit behind him that broke a string on his racquet, and last but not least a Boris Becker-style dive imitation that Federer responded to with a winning putaway on the sideline.
It wouldn’t be a Federer match if he didn’t live up to expectations when it came to hitting special shots. He conjured up a half-volley at the net, combined with a reactionary forehand volley, to finish the opening point of the eighth game, a trademark wrist snapping high backhand smash in the tenth game at deuce and a terrific combination of volleys to end a high-intensity shuffle on the next point.
Entering the tiebreak, the forehand of the Grass king glided past the resilient Nadal on the two opening points. But Rafa responded in kind. Finally, not refusing to hold back, he committed to the forehand return and executed a winner. “Sí” he voiced, welcoming his own successful little change-up. But reclaiming the mini-break, Federer then deployed his camouflaged first serve delivery to crank two service winners. The real confidence booster for Federer was yet to come, as he won a 9-shot rally against the odds when Nadal got tense on the last backhand. The champ was leading 6-2. He missed the first set point with a netted backhand but wore Nadal down patiently to yet again be up one set to the good.
Nadal, however, wasn’t going to let off. It’s not in his character to do so. He stuck to his newly found game plan to take the ball early, and it paid dividends right at the start of the fourth as his passing shots began to find their mark again, frustrating the Swiss icon as he got broken to 30.
Being down 2-0, Federer wasn’t in control of the rallies anymore. With Federer serving at 30-30, Nadal whipped his forehand seemingly just out and immediately challenged it. Federer was nowhere near the ball and, convinced of it being out, suffered a meltdown when the replay showed it just clipping the line. Famously not a fan of the hawk-eye system, he immediately chatted to umpire Carlos Ramos about how he felt an injustice had occurred. His concentration had deserted him. He then netted his backhand to hand Rafa the insurance break. Roger was left cursing on the change of ends, exclaiming to Ramos “The system is killing me!”
Federer was out of sorts, and the audience didn’t know what to make of it. Nadal sealed the next game to lead 4-0 with a dipping crosscourt lasso forehand. Could the King of Grass lose a set 6-0? At 15-30 down Nadal hit another long shot, and Federer barked to the linesman: “How was that? Was it in?” As the Brits say ‘He was taking the Mickey out of him!’ One backhand winner up the line and an ace later, and Federer avoided the bagel humiliation.
Federer just couldn’t trouble Nadal’s service games though. Rafa served out the set to 30 as Federer’s backhand broke down after being attacked by Rafa’s savage topspin forehand. 6-2 to the Spaniard. It was the first time in six years that the Wimbledon title was going to be decided in a fifth set – this hadn’t happened since Goran Ivanisevic’s famous win over Pat Rafter in the epic 2001 final.
The first two service games saw tentative play from both, but Federer’s serve had not yet booked the flight back to Switzerland. The third game was a special one. It started off with a backhand stab volley from Federer, an inside out bashed forehand winner from Nadal followed by a hooked running forehand passing shot, and a forehand miss from the champion. Federer had not yet missed a first serve in the decider but was nonetheless still staring at two break points to his greatest nemesis. A backhand and forehand error from Nadal meant Federer got back to deuce. Two points later Federer finally took the game with a forehand winner up the line. Federer had gotten out of jail, and he knew it.
He would have to repeat the same escape act in the fifth game when he found himself down 15-40 once again after yet another erratic forehand. His serve though pulled him through what would’ve been certain tribulation. A dazzling 16-shot rally then saw the Wimbledon champion edge one game ahead of his Spanish challenger, 3-2.
Now it was Nadal who had to endure the ordeal of facing breakpoints. But where Federer had to dispose of ‘only’ two of them earlier, Nadal was now looking at being broken to love owing to a couple of spectacular Federer forehand winners. Federer failed on the first time of asking. The point that followed proved to be the decisive one in this monumental contest. It’s the one that, for everyone who watched the match live, will forever be ingrained in their memory. A truly hypnotic, mesmerizing 14 shot rally concluded with a knifing Federer backhand that just cleared the net, a scooped up Nadal forehand, and an inside-out Federer forehand winner that landed right on the sideline. Federer’s roaring celebration only lasted one second before he returned into all-business mode.
Federer was now unshackled. He had freed himself from the suffocatingly tight stranglehold Nadal had put him in. His serving became impregnable. Gravity each and every time made sure that the yellow fibres of the ball would not escape Federer’s strings on his deadly first serve delivery. But there was even more to it than what meets the eyes. Next to gravity, there seemed to be the forces of magnetism in play as well. Federer’s timing became immaculate as if the ball was drawn to the sweet spot of his Wilson wand and nothing else. He thundered down three aces to lead 5-2 as if nothing had happened.
He pressed Nadal hard on his following service game. Where Nadal was hugging the baseline, Federer seemed to be making sweet love to it. An inside out forehand return bomb and a backhand down the line got the champion back to deuce on two occasions. A long forehand from Nadal meant the Swiss got his first championship point. But he didn’t find the range with his forehand on that opportunity. On the second time of asking, however, Federer clinched the win. Again he ran around the backhand to smash the forehand return to force Nadal to play the short ball. Federer pounced on it and finished off Nadal’s lob with a smash at the net. Elation took over all of the Swiss’ motor functions as he fell to the ground.
A congratulatory handshake at the net said it all. The two had just produced a grass-court classic, and every single person on Centre Court, the combatants included, knew it. They had unleashed an avalanche of passing shots and finger-licking touch volleys and drop shots for nearly four hours straight.
In the courtside interview with Sue Barker, Nadal got a laugh out of the English crowd.
“Well, anyway, I lose today!”.
Federer however made more of a prophetic statement than he’d have liked to:
“I’m happy with every title I get before he takes them all!”
Federer was the one to equal a certain silver-haired Swede’s records that still day on a roofless Centre Court with his fifth consecutive title at the All England Club. He had successfully fended off Nadal for the Wimbledon crown. For now.
Full Match Replay
Leave your thoughts in the comment section below on what your top five grass-court matches are!