Great Sporting Moments: Rafael Nadal defeats Roger Federer in Wimbledon final

Sometimes, sport is more than just sport. Sometimes, the greatest champions reach a zone of near-perfection that approaches the divine. Introducing our week-long celebration of such moments, James Lawton pays tribute to one of the greatest tennis matches of all time

If you were at Centre Court on that glowering, brilliant night a year ago, it is possible to close your eyes now and visualise maybe the greatest tennis shot ever played.

When you do it - when you see Roger Federer, trailing at match point in the fourth set tie-breaker, playing a backhand down the line that Rafael Nadal, in his remorseless way, appeared to have covered, but hadn't, because there was no earthly counter to such a shot - you see again the moment when a superb tennis match - like the shot, perhaps the best one ever played - moved on to another dimension. Federer made his point and created, once more, the magnificent illusion that he could do anything, that no challenge or pressure was so great that it could not be sustained by the sheer scale of his talent and his resolve. A rifle shot could have had no more impact on the hushed gathering.

Later, when asked about the nerve and the timing that went into that potentially transforming moment, Federer shrugged and said: "Some shots you have to play - you see it and you do it and you don't think about it going wrong. You just do what you know you have to do." It says everything about the greatness of the Wimbledon final of 2008 that the one that came a year later, which saw Roger Federer re-instated as a natural born winner of unprecedented grace and resolve in the longest, most compelling fifth set in the history of the tournament, could never quite touch the splendour of its predecessor. In the end it wasn't the tennis that was utterly compelling, so demanding of minute inspection, even as it oscillated between the sublime and the merely edgy.

No, the fascination seemed to run so much more deeply than that. Most riveting were the mood changes of the men, growing and diminishing, and growing again before your eyes with their reactions to what the match was doing to them; how it seemed to be drawing, layer after layer, the best of what they were - and, yes, the very best of sport. That last element, carrying us so far beyond the tramlines of the court, was the only one that could not be have been confidently imagined before Nadal, the Adonis gladiator, marched on to Centre Court.

The quality of the tennis had been more or less guaranteed, as had a certain sense of history as Federer, arguably the best player the game had ever seen, attempted to staunch the rising threat of his ferocious young challenger Nadal, who a month earlier had humiliated him in the final of the French Open.

Then, it was understood right across the tennis world that something rare, if not unique, was in the air. Nadal, who had grown so huge both in his body and in his confidence, who had earlier made matchwood of the hopes of Andrew Murray, was reaching for a triumphant rite of passage - and Federer's challenge was not only to preserve his Wimbledon crown (for the fifth time since his breakthrough against the hulking Greek-Australian Mark Philippoussis in 2003) but also to preserve his credibility and his mystique.

That credibility had, without doubt, been severely dented on the red clay of Roland Garros. Nadal's victory in Paris had been no ordinary beating. It had been part ambush, part evisceration, as Nadal exerted his command on a surface that seemed to be saying finally - but, as it eventually proved this spring, falsely - that it would always be hostile terrain for Federer. Could Federer prevent a similar demolition at Wimbledon? The record books show that Nadal won, beating Federer 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7, in the longest Wimbledon final in history at 4 hours and 48 minutes of playing time, and rain-breaks lasting a total of 1 hour 50 minutes.

But what was so extraordinary about this final was that when Nadal made his winning point, at 9.15pm in the last of the light, and threw himself on to the grass, it was almost as if the result had become academic. You would never have persuaded either Federer or Nadal or their most zealous supporters of this, but for most of the rest of us inside Centre Court - where 28 years earlier, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe were credited with having played the most gripping final of all time - the result had become irrelevant.

There was a wider victory here. It was for the very concept of sport. Long before the moment of closure, you had been reaching for precedents - the Borg-McEnroe one on this tennis court and, as the match soared from one elevated level to another, soon enough any arena where games are played and battles waged. You thought of fighters such as Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, and the greatest footballers, Pele and Cruyff, Best and Charlton, and what it is to see Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods at their best, or Gareth Edwards burrow down for a try, or Sebastian Coe win an Olympic gold medal and inspire a celebrated sports columnist to write that he was the Lord Byron of the track... And all this was done with the certainty that comparisons were not being stretched.

This was because you knew that, however it turned out, it was a contest you would never forget. Indeed, you would always have it among your greatest memories, the ones that would always give you the defiant belief that, however assailed by greed and politics and gamesmanship sport might become, it would from time to time rouse itself to such moments of supreme redemption. McEnroe, the brilliant, intemperate pup, had made a contribution to that conviction in 1980, when he swept away the hostility of the Centre Court crowd - and the glacial Borg - in a rampaging 6-1 march through the first set of that earlier memorable final. Ali did it when he shook the world with victory over the huge favourite George Foreman in what might have been a jungle clearing in Zaire, so elemental was the battle.

Sir Roger Bannister did it when he ran the first sub-four minute mile. And now Federer and Nadal were doing it on this long, utterly absorbing and, at times, surreal Sabbath in SW19. Yet it could easily have been very different. Initially, there was the fear that, far from making the fight of his life and defying the worst implications of Nadal's crushing victory in Paris, Federer, aged 26, might submit to the weight of fear that his time had indeed passed, that Nadal, the muscular 22-year-old from Majorca, was about to corner him on his favourite surface of grass and consume him with a combination of speed, power and a defence that often seemed bottomless in its stubbornness and athleticism. Certainly that prospect had already surfaced a year earlier, when Federer was required to go five sets to beat Nadal in a second consecutive Wimbledon final (one more than in their first collision in 2006).

Then, Borg had been present to award Federer the trophy for a performance that matched his own achievement of five straight titles. For so long Borg had spent his time away from the game in Garbo-like exile but the lure of Federer's grace on the court, and his impending mark on history, had replenished the love of competition which had burned so strongly behind those deep-set eyes when McEnroe laid down his challenge so fiercely so long ago. Then, Federer slipped into an elegantly tailored line jacket for the presentation. He looked like a character from an F Scott Fitzerald novel, the Great Gatsby of tennis no less. Today, however, it was Nadal who exuded confidence.

As he came on to court, he saw his compatriot, Manuel Santana, whose elegant game had delivered Spain the title 42 years earlier in a three-set defeat of the American, Dennis Ralston. Now Spanish subtlety was being augmented by immense power, and, as the Spaniards embraced, it was hard not to believe that this was a meeting of tennis conquistadors - a conviction that seemed to be scrawled across the gathering clouds as play began.

Nadal seemed to pick up business directly from Roland Garros, where he had dominated Federer in every aspect of the game on clay. Here on the lightning surface of Centre Court, he displayed the same level of authority, winning the first set 6-4 with some ease, and then, after quelling a Federer recovery which took the champion to 4-1 in the second set, claimed a two-set lead by the same score.

Then, in the third set, Federer re-discovered his ability to serve with absolute authority. The Swiss reeled off a series of aces against which even the supreme defender of tennis had no counter. Now, at last, there could be no doubt: the champion would not relinquish his title without the utmost defiance. The balance of the match changed, and Federer won the two ensuing tie-breaks, the second of which contained shots of such awesome power and skill and judgement - from both players - that we knew that we were watching the ultimate exhibition of the game.

Was Nadal-Federer indeed better, deeper, more involving, more thrilling than McEnroe-Borg, which contained a 22-minute, 18-16 tie-break carried, after an astonishing ebb and flow of advantage, by the brash young American? McEnroe himself thought so. Not only that, he argued it might have been the best match ever played. Boris Becker - who won Wimbledon at the age of 17 and then, when he lost the following year, said philosophically: "No one died out there" - agreed. He talked of a heart-stopping match. "We were watching two of the greatest players to have played this beautiful game of tennis: Roger Federer, arguably the greatest player who has ever lived, against arguably the best player on clay who has ever lived," Becker said. "By winning the final, Nadal became the first person since Bjorn Borg to win the Wimbledon and the French Open in the same year, and whoever does that in the same year is the best player in the world. "I was so nervous watching. I can't imagine what it was like being in the Federer or Nadal camps. It was the best final I've seen - and I'm including Borg against McEnroe and some of the Pete Sampras finals in that.

Nadal played better throughout the whole five sets, while Federer only raised his level in the third set when he really needed to. The first two sets were one-sided but from the third set on Federer played how I expected him to do from the very beginning, using his big serve and his forehand. Once Roger started to play, really play, the match exceeded all expectations and it was amazing to be part of it.

"Federer wouldn't have been Federer if he hadn't come back with something amazing. Whenever he was down he'd come back with an ace or a great forehand down the line. Yes, it was amazing to watch." Like McEnroe, Becker was emphatic that this was indeed the greatest of Wimbledon finals, and only the briefest trawl through the details of the earlier match is enough to get the measure of that statement. Undoubtedly the 1980 final was the match to beat, to surpass not only in terms of the quality of the play but the extraordinary level of determination.

You could feel the antipathy of the crowd when McEnroe came on to court that day, in his headband and abbreviated shorts. A long-established enfant terrible since his dramatic march to the semi-finals as a 17-year-old qualifier four years earlier - a few weeks earlier his father had told me that the British public had mistaken his son's desperate need to succeed for mere puppy petulance - McEnroe had gone to the limit with an official warning for his ranting in the semi-final against Jimmy Connors.

But if McEnroe had been ruthless in his psychological warfare, if he had trampled down the old values of sport, he was also brilliant in his talent and his anarchic charisma, and it was this that helped him to brush aside much prejudice in a first set in which Borg had never looked so discomfited. It was as though he had returned to the wrong place at the wrong time, and McEnroe's progress in the first set was unstoppable. The Swedish iceberg was melting before our eyes as McEnroe left most of his barking to his racket, a weapon of refined force, as he seemed to take an unshakeable grip on both the first set and the match. But then, slowly at first, but with increasing force, old conviction came back to the four-time champion, who after winning the first of his 11 Grand Slam titles in Paris as a teenager told me, "Already I have all I could want, a nice Volvo, the chance to see the world - I can only drive one car, wear one pair of jeans . . .

I feel the pattern of my life is settled. I happen to play tennis well and I enjoy it, so it is not very complicated." Borg, finding his serve, won the second set 7-5, cruised through the third, which he won 6-3, and then broke McEnroe quite clinically to go 5-4 up. McEnroe's brooding countenance hinted of a collision with that wall which can so brutally announce a superior talent. Borg, sensing that he was on the right side of the wall, served his way to two match points. But the assumption of a now almost formal triumph had come too quickly.

McEnroe ransacked his repertoire for a blinding backhand down the line, then a pulverising, volley drive. Alive again, he reeled off six straight points. He fought his way, on equal terms again, to what tennis will always remember not merely as a remarkable, pulsating, tie-break, but simply as the tie-break, the one for all time. It was the one which explored all reserves of fight and touch and talent. Borg, having put aside the silent cursing that followed his earlier missed opportunity, reached match points at 6-5 and 7-6; McEnroe sprang back and achieved two of his own. But surely the overwhelming tide was with the champion. He won three more match points but saw them disappear as McEnroe dredged up a searing return of service, a net cord point and an irresistible volley.

This time McEnroe refused to yield the advantage, fighting his way into the fifth set with a vicious, top-spinning return of serve which rushed Borg into what might have proved to be the most critical error of his career. The final set was no less tense, but Borg's service was again working at a high level, with 80 per cent of his first serves going in, and when he finally gathered in his fifth Wimbledon win, with a backhand, to make it 8-6, the crowd cheered rapturously not only a fine victory but the match of the age . . . one that would last until July, 2008.

Some will always see the kernel of the greatness of last year's final - and the essence of the case for its surpassing Borg-McEnroe - in the two shots that saw Nadal carried to, and then wrenched back from, victory in that fourth set tie-break. Nadal achieved his second match point with a forehand winner guaranteed to ravage almost any opponent's belief that he had the means to survive. But Federer had not reached breaking point. His next shot was that one mentioned earlier - that backhand for the ages that could not have succeeded without the finest nerve and delivery. Now it was Nadal's turn to be stunned.

Later, Federer said that he had never seen his younger opponent brought to such a point of self-doubt. None the less, it was Nadal who prevailed when they came back after the rain break which intervened at 2-2 in the fifth set. Had Federer held his serve to take it to 8-8 in the final set there is little doubt the action would have been suspended until the following day, and then, who could have said who would best have endured the intervening hours? But Federer could not hold the serve.

The best he could do was save three match points; but then, when a forehand drifted long, the issue was all but settled. There was time just for one last reach into the armoury of a great champion, still another blazing backhand to bring the last game to deuce. Nadal, though, had come through his doubt, and his serve held. So, too, did the demeanour of a young champion who had reminded the world that it was possible to achieve the highest of your ambitions without a single compromise.

For a little while, the victor and the vanquished were united in an achievement that soared beyond the normal boundaries of win and loss. When Federer was told that McEnroe had said it was the greatest game he had ever seen, he said: "It's not up to me or Rafael to say that. It's not a debate for us. I'm happy we put in a great effort. It was a fair battle, which was tough with the rain delays. But yes, there were some great points. I just think we played tough until the very end.

Unfortunately in tennis, like all of sport, there has to be a winner and a loser. I wish so much I had the trophy, but Rafael deserves it . . . He has improved so strongly, and today he made me do everything I could, and in the end, it wasn't enough." Nadal said: "It's a dream for me, and I still cannot believe it has happened. It was the most emotional match I ever played in, probably the best. In the last game I didn't see anything.

It was unbelievable, and I thought we would have to stop it if I lost the last game. "After losing the fourth set, I sat down and told myself, 'You are playing well and this is the final of Wimbledon. So it is simple. You have to keep fighting'." Keep fighting he did, and so did Federer. They kept fighting into a night that could scarcely have come less gently, and as they did so they heaped privilege on all who saw what they did, all who had been so compelled not to look away for a single moment. Some day we may see a better tennis match, a more engaging issue in sport. In the meantime, we can rest content with what they gave us.

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