x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Federer feels the pain from Spain

2008 review: The Swiss player who had dominated the game for 237 weeks finally showed his human side as he was replaced at the top of the rankings by Rafael Nadal.

The Spanish tennis player Rafael Nadal flung himself to the grass after winning the Wimbledon Championship during the summer.
The Spanish tennis player Rafael Nadal flung himself to the grass after winning the Wimbledon Championship during the summer.

It happened over five extraordinary sets on a summer's afternoon in London. On July 6, Roger Federer became mortal. The four hour and 48-minute duel was the longest final in Wimbledon history. It was the moment where Federer, the man who has dominated the sport and collected grand slam titles like they were fashion accessories, finally fell to his great sporting nemesis Rafael Nadal.

According to John McEnroe, who knows a thing or two about spectacle, it was the greatest match he had ever seen. It was a climax to a long chase for the Spaniard Nadal, winning at Wimbledon was the one thing he needed to do to prove he truly was the equal of Federer; the Swiss maestro had won the five preceding tournaments in the British capital. The final was nail-biting, but the 18th competitive meeting between the two brightest stars in the sport did not look like it was going to be a classic when Nadal took the first two sets 6-4.

A rain break interrupted the third, Federer won the tie-break. Nadal seemed to be cracking when he missed two championship points after taking a 5-2 lead in a tie-break for the fourth set and allowed Federer to level the match. The fifth set, a winner-takes-all showdown, was again hit by rain by Nadal - his bulging biceps turning him into a human battering ram - claiming a 9-7 victory as the sun set over Centre Court at the All England Club.

It was a changing of the guard. Prior to this summer Federer had come out on top of the duel, except for the clay court season that culminates each June in Paris with the French Open. There Nadal made his mark. Across the English Channel it was Federer who reigned supreme. 2008 will be remembered as the year the reign ended. In truth, that invincible aura first started to diminish in January when he went out of the Australian Open at the semi-final stage. Suffering from glandular fever, he lost to the eventual winner Novak Djokovic.

It was the first grand slam in three years that did not have Federer in the final. Federer returned to the top table when he met Nadal to decide the French Open. The final was a mis-match, the Spaniard vanquishing his rival in straight sets and only conceding four games to a player who had dominated the sport for years. It was the most one-sided final in living memory, a rare humbling for a legend of the modern game, and meant the two were virtually inseparable as they headed to Wimbledon.

After the famous final in London though, it was clear Nadal had usurped Federer as the world's top player. What the world had already come to believe was confirmed in August, when Nadal added the Olympic gold to his two grand slams and took over at the top of the ATP men's rankings. It ended an incredible 237-week run by Federer as the world's best. And now, as the 2009 season gets underway there is a genuine three-way battle to be the world No 1, with Djokovic not far behind the two greats.

In fourth is Andy Murray, the British player who confirmed his star quality this year by reaching the US Open final. He lost to Federer, the only major trophy he won this season, but Murray's run ensured he ended the year in the upper echelons of the men's game. Injury ruled Nadal out of the Davis Cup final, which saw Spain travel to Buenos Aires to take on Argentina. The Europeans pulled off a surprise 3-1 win, showing there is depth to their talent.

Murray's late flourish ensures the men's game is in fine shape for the new season: the Federer-Nadal rivalry will continue; Djokovic looks capable of beating either when he is in form; Murray can upset any of the three with his dogged play while other talents like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Marcos Baghdatis are heading towards their peak. lthornhill@thenational.ae