There was wind. There was rain. There was a blue sky too.
There are moments in a sport's history that will someday later come to be known as the ones that changed it forever, the moments about which people will someday proudly proclaim, 'I was there!', and tonight, there were two unassuming gentlemen at the Centre court at Wimbledon scripting one such moment, changing the face of the sport forever. Two maestros outdid one other in turns, like wizards conjuring up spells of genius with their racquet-shaped wands, two contrasting styles at a stalemate. One never gave up, the other never gave in. Fate hung by millimetre-thick threads while sporting brilliance never seemed more than a shot away.
And then, a lash of the forehand sent the ball crashing into the net and it came down onto the grass, lifeless.
6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7.
Wimbledon erupted, and a twenty-two year old Spaniard collapsed on the other side of the net, ecstasy rolling down his eyes. Rafael Nadal had finally conquered Roger Federer. On grass. At Wimbledon. Words I have waited an year to type out. Rafael Nadal was Wimbledon Champion, and that was where the world ended. There were no more balls to be hit, no more runs to be made. He didn't know what to do. Appropriately. For four hours and forty eight minutes on centre court, amid rain delays, gusty winds and with one of the game's greatest legends on the other side of the net, he made the world believe he was something more than just human and it was apt that the glorious moment that it all culminated in showed more than any other that he was just a man. Everything rushed into his head, every single time he had ever held a Tennis racquet, everything he'd sacrificed, dreaming of the day he would hold aloft that golden trophy on the lawns of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. Not the father, not the uncle, not even the Prince and Princess of Spain could do anything about the tears. They belonged, rightly so, to the grass he had dreamt of as a little boy in Majorca, the same grass on which he had just fulfilled his sporting destiny.
On the other side of the net, Roger Federer was experiencing something painfully new, the feeling of being the runner-up at Wimbledon. For five years, he had ruled the All England Club like few had ever done before him but this time, as he later acknowledged with a calm smile on his face, he tried everything but it just wasn't enough. There was very, very little separating the two today and the match could've easily gone either way but in the end, it was Nadal's unremitting energy and stamina that produced the very, very little extra that the game needed to produce a winner.
It was perhaps fitting that this game took place at the home of the modern game. Fueled by what is fast becoming one of the greatest rivalries that tennis, or any other sport, for that matter, has known, the sport had been elevated to another level, producing some of the most breathtaking tennis that has been seen in a long time. We would be compelled to go back twenty eight years in time to find something that rivals the beauty of this match when Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe produced something similar in terms of the rivalry and quality. The same match that contained the momentous tiebreak in the fourth set which McEnroe took 18-16. But Borg held on to win that epic match, staving off waves of brilliant shot-making from McEnroe to make it five Wimbledon crowns in a row. The next year's final featured the same duo but this time it was McEnroe who took the crown, capping off a great rivalry with the Swede, ending his five year reign. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
It may well have been that this year's Wimbledon title had been won, or lost, at the French Open final. It's been a well-observed trend over the past few years that Nadal has been getting better on grass than Federer has on clay. And when, this year, on his third attempt at the French crown, Federer could muster only four games while being annihilated in what was one of Nadal's most clinical displays of clay-court tennis, he could've lost more than just that match. Whatever Roger may say, however vehemently he may deny that Wimbledon is not Roland Garros, he offered little today to prove it. No matter the surface, Nadal to him is the puzzle he can't seem to solve, the untiring bundle of energy that negates his strokemaking like no one ever did before, the guy who makes his genius look all too human at times. Look at the facts. Out of thirteen break points, Federer converted one, only one. Not the Federer we know, is he? When was the last time he committed twice the number (52, to Nadal's 27) of his opponent's unforced errors? And when did you last see him scream on court, egging himself on and anguishing at lost points? And when, oh when, did you catch Mirka Vavrinec exhort him from the sidelines?
As you watched the match today, there was an impending sense of collapsibility about the champion, no matter what instinct suggested. Nadal broke him early to take the first set but trailing 1-4 in the second set, there had to be something special about the Majorcan to topple the Swiss and there indeed was. Federer's serve was broken twice and Nadal had the second set wrapped up in 46 minutes. With Nadal serving at 4-5 in the third set, rain forced a delay for the first time, probably coming to the defending champion's aid. And after play resumed, he fought back strongly and took third and fourth sets on tiebreak, neither unable to break the other’s serve. The fourth set tie-break produced the most exhilarating tennis of the match, Federer having to dig deep to save two championship points for the Spaniard, in the end taking the tiebreak 10-8. But later in the fifth set, Nadal's energy started kicking in and he started stretching Federer's serves more with each game and in the end, he broke Federer in the fifteenth game of the set to serve for the championship at 8-7. Federer fought with all his might, dragging the game to deuce before conceding a championship point and then manufacturing what was probably the return of the match to bring it back to deuce again. But then, a magnificent serve brought Nadal his fourth championship point and another unforced error from the champion ended his five year reign, giving the Spaniard his first ever Wimbledon crown.
So, what does Nadal’s win mean for men's Tennis? There will be zealous proclamations of a 'changing of the guard' and questions raised about the 'end of a reign' but it doesn't take too much of common sense to see that it's not the case. Federer is far from a spent force and Nadal is far from unbeatable. But this will change a few things for sure and Federer will know them better than anybody else. His aura of invincibility has finally been broken but actually, it may not have come at a better time for him to reassess himself if he seeks to capture that French Open title that has eluded him for so long. If there has been a single factor that has worked against him in debates of "the greatest of all time", it has been the absence of a real challenge from his rivals unlike the other greats Sampras or Borg who had clear challengers like Agassi and McEnroe snapping at their heels all their time. And now, Roger has that, a true challenger in the guise of Nadal. If he seeks to put at rest all those theories that he has been largely untested by real competition, this is the time. His game on clay is still notches below Nadal's and he has to work a lot to get there but he now knows that it's the Nadal in his mind that's bothering him more than the one across the net. Next year's French Open and, not to mention, Wimbledon, may well be the dawn of a new era in men’s Tennis thanks to this fierce rivalry. Tennis stands to be the winner no matter what the outcome.
Nadal put things into perspective in the presentation ceremony when asked if it was a special win because he beat Federer to win it. He said, 'He has five Wimbledon titles to his name and I have just won my first.' That should settle it. But for tonight and the history that accompanies it, there won't be a more fitting and deserving Wimbledon champion than this young man. John McEnroe would agree.