Rafael Nadal, at 9:17PM local time of the tournament, collapsed and landed flat on his back. Wearing his all white Nike uniform, and a reverberating iconic "Vamos", Rafael Nadal is the winner of the Greatest Tennis Match, let alone Final, in the sports history.
And let's not get it twisted. It was not only the stroke latent tension, that made it the way it was (which by the way, I still feel my heart skip every other beat even to this day). But it was the sheer quality that I still have not seen since then. Roger Federer played the match of his life. Still to this day.
For him unfortunately, he played Rafa, who had the match of his!
At the time, the match was four hours and forty-eight minutes, the longest in Wimbledon's history. But the event was almost seven hours long! Mother nature herself, didn't want to be absent for this. And when it was pitch dark outside, let me indulge in hyperbole and say it was the people's electricity that illuminated the court.
The power surge came from the shot making of these two, Rafa and Roger.
I mean, I am still in awe of the ground these two covered, the angles they were hitting, the precision and depth of their shots. Plus if you consider the continuous and relentless nature of each point, it is safe to say, viewers had the greatest symphony ever displayed on a tennis court.
Let's add some of the nuance.
Spanish Tennis Great Manuel Santana was in attendance, and before a shot was made in this match, both Rafa and Roger shook this giant's hand before taking the court. Think about this crazy coincidence. In 1964 Spain won their first ever Euro Cup (please consider the once notorious reputation of Spain being the greatest underachieving Soccer Giant at the time). And then a couple years later, Santana won the first ever Wimbledon title for a Spaniard.
A week before this match in 2008, Spain won its second ever Euro Cup. Nadal, by the grace of his tenacity, became the second Spaniard to win Wimbledon. Coincidence?!
Also in attendance, was Bjorn Borg. Borg, for all of those reading and may not know, did win five straight Wimbledon Championships. Last of which, was his epic five setter with John McEnroe. Another cool wrinkle, it was McEnroe to beat Borg eventually. And oh yeah, McEnroe was also in attendance as he was calling the match.
So, all of this to say what? Whether you believe in the grace of destiny or not, the mere universal alignment and coincidence of things of this day, is pristinely, well self-evident.
Before this Wimbledon title, Rafa and Roger were dominating the sport (again this is before Novak came surging on the scene). They were the two titans of the sport at the time. Rafa had won four straight Roland Garros Titles. He did come up empty to what was an epic 2007 Wimbledon title to Roger just the year before.
That epic battle, again just the year before, reportedly broke Nadal to tears for half and hour in the locker room. And oh yeah, Roger had won five straight Wimbledon titles by this time, searching for his 6th, which we already mentioned, would be a record. A record he can break in front of Borg, who shared it with him and was in attendance.
Listen at the time, the "Best Tennis Player of the next Era" was being played for, implicitly. And specific to the match, Rafa came scorching, and won the first two sets. His powerful forehand/ground game play to Federer's backhand plus his timely and efficient serving, plus, his purposeful passing shots, allowed Rafa to take both sets 6-4, respectively.
Then, Roger by the grind of his elegance, pulled a Rafa on Rafa.
He took the next two sets on tiebreakers. Using his serve and angles to get himself back in the game. Add the fact that Rafa, who's knee problems were well documented at the time, took a spill, had medical consultation, and was heavily banded on his knees for extra support added to the storyline.
And even when Roger was down three break points in a critical set, at 3-3, he came up clutch, simply winning those points. Please note, a theme throughout this post about the quality of this match, when someone won a point, it was because they did. Not that the opponent lost it.
Now, we know that in Wimbledon, a fifth set does not go into a tiebreak. There must be a break of serve if you do go beyond 6-6. Which we know, in this day, it did!
So Mother Nature struck us with her presence as mentioned before. The match was delayed by a half and hour. Then in the third set, with the score 5-4, the rain came again (a delay). And of course, again in the fifth set. Then the threat of postponement was in the face of these two, and having to deal with the loss of momentum only put mental stress.
To put this into perspective, which is almost impossible to do, imagine you are running and you have never ran as fast. Everything is working for you. And while you are running, you have to have your phone on, just in case, because you are responsible for driving your pregnant loved one to the hospital. So the threat of stopping because of that is on the back of your mind. But now, you are forced to stop because of torrential rain. Three times. Up to a point, your body is going to say, "ok, enough is enough, time to ratchet this down". And remember, you still have the stress of driving your pregnant loved one to the hospital at any moment.
But on this day, the quality didn't. The fitness continued. The mental acuity never waned. What we were witnessing was superhuman.
Listen, I want to talk and highlight the following about Rafa: persistence, poise, and clutchness. Determination, elegance, and grit. Unrelenting humility. Insatiable hunger. Never-ending pressure. Heart. Love for self. Love for family. Love for the sport. Love for country.
Why the heck even bring this up. The amount of poise and persistence required by both players, especially Rafa, was infallible. Nadal had three championship points (two from the fourth set TIEBREAK), until he won on his fourth. One of the championship points was lost, after Roger Federer made the sickest backhand crosscourt return for an outright winner. And we often talk about the Clutch gene, let it be known, no one has to question Rafa's clutch gene. Not in this title or in his career. Period!
Determination, elegance, and grit. How can you even be gritty but elegant at the time? We know Roger to be the most elegant tennis player of all time. And we know Rafa to be a raging bull. But it was Rafa's grit to fight off what I would at one point considered non-returnable shots, and finish points with elegant touches and passes, that transcended Rafa to a whole new type of tennis player that we have never seen before.
Unrelenting humility. Knowing that there are factors that you cannot control. That the world is bigger than just yourself. And knowing, that every point can be your last. Knowing, that an entire country in Spain is hoping you cannot only pull this for him, but for the entire nation. Knowing that your family is watching your every move. And for that matter, the Spanish Royal Family.
Knowing that one of your best friends on the other side of the court, is showing you, I am going to beat you down (and has in epic fashion just the previous year). But knowing the humility of your actions, and the sweat equity of your play, Rafa knew he just had to work to pull it off.
Insatiable hunger and Never-Ending Pressure. I mean, just watch Rafa play. He doesn't quit. He goes after every ball as it is his means of eating for the day. And that is to a point NOT hyperbole. The context is real. Let me explain.
In Spain, they suffered through their own Civil War in the 20-30s that preluded WWII. Then they entered in a time period of dictatorship and poverty that was unprecedented for the country at the time. And what really kept people in Spain together were a few things, highlighted by family, trust in family, and pride in country. All of which were drivers to finding your next meal to eat. Your next hope to live. The reason to wake up and love. That is how Rafa plays. Every point is his determination to feed his family. To protect his loved ones. To love his people. To not disappoint. And to show his love for country.
So, what does this all mean in the discussion of being the G.O.A.T.
All it does, is that it adds nuance to the conversation. And this is to not say, that DJokovic didn't have epic battles with Rafa. Or with Roger. Or that Roger didn't have other epic battles that wasn't with Rafa - because he had one with Djokovic in 2019 (in the same Wimbledon tournament).
But what it does show, is that when we think of the Greatest Match of all time, it highlights Rafa and Roger. And in 2008, we had Rafa at one his highest peaks. And Roger at his highest peak. And although Novak is in the conversation of Greatest (that year where he was ranked 3rd, made it to the second round), so he didn't participate in this final. And Roger didn't win this match. It was Rafael Nadal that reigned on top.
So let us repeat this one more time.
Rafael Nadal, at 9:17PM local time of the tournament, collapsed and landed flat on his back.
I remember the lasting image of him hugging his family. Wearing the Spanish flag around his neck. Apologizing to Federer for winning the match. And winning the tournament that propelled him into the conversation of one of the greatest the sport has ever seen. Propelling him to a #1 ranking for the first time later that summer, and well, even today 12+ years later, standing on top of the mountaintop.
But these Big 3 are still playing, so things can change.
But this one match, is forever and that my friends, is history.