by John Furgele
In my last column, I mentioned that today’s Wimbledon final was going to be the most important match since McEnroe beat Borg in 1981. Roger Federer played the role of Borg. A win, he would have been the 1980 Borg, a loss, the 1981 Borg. Well, Federer lost, so in the end he was the 1981 Borg, but unlike the 1981 Borg, who never played at Wimbledon again, it is fairly safe to assume that Federer will be back for some more Wimbledons.
Today’s match was simply brilliant, one for the ages, an epic and every other superlative one can think of. Though the first two sets were relatively close they went Nadal’s way, and it appeared that the 22 year old Spainard was going to find a way to wrest the title from King Roger in straight sets.
But, the King would not fold, would not go easily. After looking a bit passive in the first two sets, he began to play more with more agression, and though he could only manage one break of Nadal’s serve all day, he won the third set tiebreak, then won an epic 10-8 fourth set tiebreak. Down 7-8, Nadal hit a great approach shot, only to see Federer flick a backhand winner to stay alive. Two points later, the set was Federer’s and the set that all in attendance at Centre Court wanted to see—set five—was upon us.
In that set, the man who won the first two sets would prevail winning 9 games to 7. Perhaps if they played a fifth set tiebreak Federer may have won, but at the Big W, they play until somebody wins the fifth set by two games. When Borg beat McEnroe in 1980, the fifth set score was 8-6.
It was a match, that despite the two battling for almost five hours and two rain delays, that actually saw the level of play improve as it wore on. Incredible as that was, it appeared that darkness was going to push the match back to Monday. Fortunately, that didn’t happen as it would have deprived us a conclusion to one of the better Sports Sundays in history.
The match was eerily similar to Borg-McEnroe, 1980. In that match, McEnroe took the fourth set tiebreak, 18-16, and Mac admitted on NBC television this morning that he figured that the match would be his, that Borg, after winning four straight Wimbledon titles, would not feel the urge to dig down deep to win another.
“He (Borg) taught me a lesson about heart that day,” said McEnroe.
Nadal had to be down after leaving several championship points on the table, yet, he did a fine Borg imitation, holding his serve before breaking through in the 15th game of the final set. On match point, Federer dumped a relatively easy forehand approach shot into the net, giving Nadal the historic win. But, after five years and five hours of dominant tennis in the London suburb, he is allowed to finally be less than perfect.
Nadal and Federer have met in six Grand Slam finals, the most between two players in tennis history, and after watching these two at the Wimbledon fortnight, there is one thing that remains clear. These two men are far and away the best two grass court players in the world, and it’s not even close. To see them on Centre Court on the first Sunday in July, 2009 would be a surprise to no one.
Where the rivalry goes from here remains unclear. Has the mantle been passed from Roger to Rafa, or does Roger have a Boris Becker in him? In 1988, Becker, after winning Wimbledon titles in 1985 and 1986 lost the final to Stefan Edberg. The next year, Becker and Edberg met again in the final with Becker winning the last of his three championships. Can Roger get the title back from the young Nadal? Usually, once the King is dethroned, they never get back. We have seen this so many times, too many times to count. Borg. McEnroe. Connors. Even Sampras left Wimbledon in the 2001 fourth round—to Federer nonetheless.
Federer will have to do some serious thinking over the next year. He still has to be the favorite for the U.S. Open title for two reasons. One, he really hasn’t slipped that much in his play, unless you call reaching the Aussie Open semis, the French Open final and the Wimbledon final, slipping, then yes, he has slipped. Two, Nadal seems to really struggle there. In the past after Wimbledon Nadal goes back to clay and by the time he gets to New York in late August, he is worn down and usually battling some type of injury. Here’s hoping that he plans his schedule accordingly and comes to New York healthy and poised at the opportunity to capture his third Grand Slam of the calendar year.
Federer will want to make his own history by coming back to Wimbledon and reclaiming his crown after losing there for the first time in the final. Becker did it, but if Federer could do it after winning five, losing one, then winning another, that would be an historic feat of its own.
He has one major question/challenge to answer, and it can be broken into three parts. He has to figure out what he wants more: 1) Sampras’ record of 14 Grand Slam titles—he has 12. 2) A French Open title on the red clay that just may solidify him as the greatest tennis player of all time, even if he doesn’t break the mark of Sampras, who never won in Paris. 3) To reclaim the Wimbledon title.
Right now, there is a good bet that Federer can win another Aussie, another Wimbledon and another U.S. Open, so there is a reasonable chance that he can at least tie Sampras mark of 14. But, after being routed by Nadal at the French Open final, most think Federer’s window of opportunity for winning at Roland Garros is closed. If Federer skipped the French Open in 2009, it would be a surprise, but not a shock. Same if he entered and went out early (before the quarterfinals). He may want to gear up and save himself for reclaiming Wimbledon.
I’m not sure which would be more impressive. Winning a career Grand Slam is special and it hasn’t been done too often, but Andre Agassi did it and as good as “AA” was, nobody has ever called him the greatest tennis player of all time. Pete Sampras won seven Wimbledons and 14 slams, but never won the French Open. He did, however have a reclaim. After winning three straight Wimbledon championships, he bowed out to the eventual champion Richard Kraijeck in 1996, but then roared back to win the next four. But, back then, there was no Nadal lurking, ready to pounce and take over the number one ranking. What Federer does down the road is just as intruiging as what Nadal does.
What we saw Sunday was a match for history, but what we might see in the future might be even better.