When you think of the year 2008 as far as tennis is concerned, the first thing that might pop into your head is most likely to be the ‘Fedal’ final at Wimbledon, arguably the greatest match in the history of sport. Spain’s Rafael Nadal had stopped Switzerland's Roger Federer from winning what would have been the latter’s sixth consecutive Major on grass in a blockbuster five-set match that ended under fading light.
However, if you go through the events prior to that, you’ll find that a month before they had their third final in a row at the All England Club, they had also squared off in the summit clash on the Philippe-Chatrier court at Roland Garros for third year running. At the end of that final in Paris, World No. 2 Nadal had become the first man since Swedish legend Bjorn Borg (1978-81) to win four consecutive French Open titles in the open era.
And he did that with the kind of ruthlessness Ash Barty emulated in front of home crowd at this year's Australian Open - clinching the championship without dropping a set.
Here's a compilation of Rafael Nadal's 13 French Open Titles
The 22-year-old Mallorcan’s third French Open title (2007) had come after losing just one set throughout the tournament which happened in the final against Federer. To go a notch higher, it required absolute perfection and he did just that.
Nadal’s 2008 clay court season prior to French Open
Nadal’s hardcourt season, albeit trophy-less, had some gains as he reached the semifinals of the Australian Open for the first time in his young career. He started his clay court season by winning the titles in Monte Carlos (beat Federer 7-5, 7-5 in the final) and Barcelona (won 6-1, 4-6, 6-1 against David Ferrer in an all-Spanish final) for the fourth consecutive year.
FROM THE ARCHIVES: French Open 2008 - The spirit of the champions
Unfortunately, severe blisters on the right leg made it tough for him to repeat the feat in Rome as he crashed out in the second round after a 5-7, 1-6 loss to compatriot Juan Carlos Ferrero, 2003 Roland Garros champion and current coach of another teenage Spanish sensation Carlos Alcaraz.
The final event Nadal participated in before French Open was the Hamburg Masters. In what later turned out to be something similar to a rehearsal for Paris, the left-handed Spaniard faced World No. 3 Novak Djokovic in the semifinal before coming up against World No.1 Federer in the final showdown. He first overcame the gritty Serbian in a three-hour long battle prevailing 7-5, 2-6, 6-2 and then followed it up with another hard-earned 7-5, 6-7 (3), 6-3 victory against the defending champion from Switzerland that took almost three hours. Nadal got redemption for last year’s loss in the final and lifted the trophy in Hamburg for the first time.
2008 French Open
Defending champion and second-seeded Nadal breezed through his first five matches in Paris as he lost a combined total of just 29 games against Brazil’s Thomaz Bellucci, French Nicolas Devilder, Finn Jarkko Nieminen and fellow Spanish men Fernando Verdasco and Nicolas Almagro. His backhand slice and much-improved offensive tactics had his opponents always playing catch-up. In the semifinal, Nadal came as close as it could get to finally dropping a set against a tenacious Djokovic but overall, 6-4, 6-2, 7-6 (3) was a pretty convincing win over the Serbian.
“You got the feeling that even if Djokovic won that third, even if he had enough in the tank to go another set - obviously he’s a completely different player now - that he couldn’t win two more sets. I remember watching those matches; you were thinking it’d be an upset if someone wins a set, forget about someone winning three sets”, Brad Gilbert, who guided Andre Agassi to six Grand Slam titles including the 1999 French Open, told atptour.com on the fourth-anniversary of Nadal’s 2008 triumph.
On the other side of the draw, top-seeded Federer had to again dig deep, much like 2006, in order to reach the final. Until the French Open, he had won only one title (Estoril) that year. He had failed to defend his Australian Open crown after suffering a straight-sets loss to Djokovic in the semis.
However, two Swedes and former champions who shared nine French Open titles between them, Borg and Mat Wilander believed that an upset was on the cards in the 2008 final. “He may have lost to Nadal in Monte Carlo and Hamburg but there have been blocks of tennis - like leading 4-0 in one set and 5-1 in another - when he has shown he knows how to play Nadal now. Three years ago he won the first set easily and thought that was the way to do it. But you can't attack blindly against Rafa. You have to try and get in and, if you can't finish the point, be prepared to back-track and start again. He does that now. And if he serves well, I think he will win”, Wilander, who had won his first French Open title at the age of 17, told Richard Evans of The Guardian .
Similarly, Borg said to the UK-based publication, “Roger is playing much better now compared to Monte Carlo and Hamburg. For me, it's a big difference. He's a bit more patient. Maybe he has been talking to his coach José Higueras. It's like he's even more comfortable on the clay and he's waiting for the right shot to be aggressive. Sometimes before, he was too aggressive from certain positions in the court. But against Nadal, you have to wait for the right shot.”
One hour 48 minutes is all it took for Nadal to deliver a 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 hammering against Federer in the final the next day while Borg watched it all happen from the VIP box. Despite the “Roger, Roger” chants from a crowd of 15,000 trying to lift him up, Federer could not get his game together because Nadal never allowed him to. The final set, which lasted 27 minutes, was the first bagel in a Grand Slam match for the Swiss since his very first French Open match, against Australia's Pat Rafter in 1999.
It was also the shortest men’s final at Roland Garros in terms of games played since 1977 and the quickest in terms of time since 1980.
In his post-match interview, Federer said, “I would have hoped to do better than four games but Rafael is very, very strong."
"He dominated this tournament like maybe no one before except Borg, so congratulations Rafa. It was still a good week. Losing in a final is never easy but I will try again next year."
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