What better way to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the greatest match in tennis history – the 2008 Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – than to have a reprise featuring the two greatest players in tennis history?
A historic rematch not only could happen because Roger and Rafa will be the top two seeds, appearing in different halves of the draw, but it likely will happen. And even more enticing for sports fans, the circumstances now remain strikingly similar to yesteryear.
In mid-2008, superstar Federer had won five straight Wimbledons and 12 of the previous 20 Grand Slams. But his dominance had been increasingly threatened by a rising star wearing pirate pants and a sleeveless shirt that flaunted his bulging biceps. Nadal, nearly five years the younger, had muscled his way to four straight French Open titles and had pushed Federer to five sets in the 2007 Wimbledon final. Initially a clay court specialist, Nadal kept expanding his game and desperately wanted to dethrone the stylish Federer on his turf. The New Yorker magazine described their riveting rivalry as “the ballerina versus the boxer.”
Something and someone had to give. After the two titans battled for four hours and 48 minutes, the contender dethroned the champion 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7.
This duopoly has reigned over men’s tennis this century, with Federer racking up a record 20 majors and Nadal 17 plus an Olympic gold medal. What’s more, they’re still ruling with an iron fist. The long-time rivals have greedily split the last six majors. After all these years of glorious tennis, they still rank No.1 and 2.
After skipping the 2017 clay court season, Federer took his record-breaking eighth Wimbledon last year without losing a set. With the same smart scheduling, the King of Grass will try to repeat the feat this season. Federer turns 37 on August 8, ancient for a pro tennis player, but, strangely enough, it almost seems irrelevant. Just as his wondrous shots sometimes seem to defy the laws of physics, his superbly conditioned body seems to defy the ageing process.
His deft hands conjure the right amount of power and spin from every spot on the court, and his fleet feet almost always get him to his opponent’s shots in time. With near-perfect shot selection, the rare (nowadays) ability to serve and volley to surprise foes and an uncanny ability to capitalise on the ever-changing condition of Wimbledon grass, Federer plays like an artist outclassing artisans.
Even so, this living legend has a flaw. His one-handed backhand, while improved, is still vulnerable on serve returns and passing shots. And, alas, his bid for a ninth Wimbledon will be thwarted in the final.
Nadal has displayed terrific defence while winning his record 11 French Open titles. Over the years, his offense, however, has diversified so that he’s evolved from an immovable object to an irresistible force with every shot in the book. That offensive improvement is reflected in his No.2 serving rating of 290.6. Federer ranks first at 302.8, but it’s less impressive because he hasn’t played on slow clay this season. Not surprisingly, Nadal boasts the No.1 return rating at 172.0, significantly better than Novak Djokovic (164.5), Alexander Zverev (152.3), Federer (151.3) and Dominic Thiem (144.5). Nadal also is No.5 in the Under Pressure Ratings at 241.9. As all-time great Chris Evert pointed out, “The serve and the return are 80 per cent of grass court tennis.”
On the debit side, Nadal’s second and last Wimbledon crown came way back in 2010, and during the past six years he’s failed to even make the quarterfinals. On the plus side, his French Open tour de force expended relatively little psychic or physical energy.
“I’m an ordinary guy achieving some extraordinary things,” Nadal said in an ATP interview. Barring injury, he will achieve yet another extraordinary thing by winning his third Wimbledon and 18th Grand Slam title.
Let’s size up the field and see if anyone can end their reign.
A year ago, the 6’6” Croat suffered through an athlete’s worst nightmare. In the final of the world’s most prestigious tournament, a painful foot blister prevented him from playing anywhere near his best. That, of course, proved disastrous against Federer, who cruised to a 6-3, 6-1, 6-4 Wimbledon triumph. “It didn’t hurt so much that it was putting me in tears,” the distraught Cilic said afterwards. “It was just that feeling that I wasn’t able to give my best.”
Seven months later, with no pain and no excuses, Cilic lost another tough-to-swallow final against Federer at the Australian Open. After competing evenly with Federer for four sets, the Croat failed to convert two critical break points in the opening game of the fifth set. Then a deflated Cilic collapsed and Federer raced to a 6-2, 6-7, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 victory.
Cilic won the 2014 US Open, his only Major, by relentlessly attacking and never wavering – and besting Federer in the semifinals. If he does that this year, this dedicated and determined veteran should make at least the quarters, but he lacks the athleticism and subtle grass court skills to capture Wimbledon.
In an era where players in their 30s regularly win Majors and comprise nearly half of the top 100 ranked players, Zverev is reaching milestones as the leading Next Gen star. He is the youngest since Novak Djokovic in 2007 to rank No. 3, win five titles in a year (2017) and become a Masters 1000 champion (2017 Rome).
These “youngest” stats are all well and good, but not until the 2018 French Open did the 21-year-old German of Russian ancestry even reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal, and he needed three five-set wins to get that far. In his five previous Majors, he won just eight matches.
After Zverev was upset by No.58 Hyeon Chung in the 2018 Australian third round, he admitted: “I have some figuring out to do, what happens to me in deciding moments in Grand Slams. It happened at Wimbledon. It happened in New York. It happened here. I’m still young, so I got time. I definitely have some figuring out to do for myself.”
The 6’6”, 198-pound Zverev shouldn’t have to think too much or too hard. When, rather than temporising, he imposes his high-powered game on opponents, he can beat anyone in the world. That takes confidence and courage when the pressure peaks. He’s ready to make the quarters, or possibly the semis, at Wimbledon.
For a top 10 player with a booming serve and a potent forehand, Thiem’s career 5-4 Wimbledon match record is shockingly abysmal. Last year, in his best Wimbledon showing, he scored no wins of note before losing to No.15 Tomas Berdych in five sets in the fourth round.
His heavy topspin groundstrokes are best rewarded on clay as shown by his recently reaching the French Open final. His ultra-long backswing and deep court positioning, however, are liabilities on grass. The hard-working, 24-year-old Austrian and his long-time coach Gunter Bresnik should study the technical and tactical changes Nadal made to adapt brilliantly to grass. Until Thiem makes these requisite changes, he’ll be doomed to fourth-round results at Wimbledon.
The best take on the stunning decline and partial resurrection of 12-time Major champion Djokovic came from Pat Cash, the 1987 Wimbledon champion. After Djoker defeated 13th-seeded Roberto Bautista Agut in the French Open third round, Cash wrote in The Times (UK): “Some view the Djokovic of recent times as being too passive and interested in inner contentment. Such a pursuit is fine for those seeking a peaceful life, but if you are attempting to be a successful sportsman who goes into the big arenas with the intention of slaying the opposition, there has to be an element of the gladiatorial mindset. The requisite anger and fight is returning for Novak Djokovic.”
Fire and fury weren’t good enough, though, in the quarterfinals. Marco Cecchinato, a 72nd-ranked nonentity who had never won a Grand Slam match before Roland Garros, shocked Djokovic in four sets. Almost as shocking, an emotional Djokovic then said, “I don’t know if I’m going to play on grass.”
Fortunately, the slender Serb entered the tournament at Queen's Club, London, reaching his first final in nearly a year, where he lost in three sets to Cilic, the top seed. If the former world No,1 decides to go for his fourth Wimbledon title, it won’t happen if he plays the ambivalent Hamlet role.
So far in his injury-wracked, underachieving, controversial career, Kyrgios’ biggest claim to fame is beating Federer, Nadal and Djokovic the first time he played these superstars. Unfortunately, terrific wins have often been followed by terrible losses. Mr Unpredictable can lurch from nonchalance to indifference and from bold shot-making to reckless errors in the course of a tournament, a match or even a set.
It’s still not too late, however, for the super-talented but volatile 23-year-old Australian to reach his immense potential. And Wimbledon, where the points are short and his explosive serve does the most damage, is the most propitious venue for a career breakthrough.
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