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Roger v Rafa - the best final ever?

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Music montage: The best final?

By Alistair Magowan

The men's 2008 Wimbledon final on Sunday is already being talked about as one of the best tennis matches, if not sporting encounters, in history.

It's a tough call to compare sports, or even eras within a sport, but there were many reasons why the epic match on Centre Court will stand out on its own.

Here BBC Sport sums up why more than 12m people in the UK alone tuned in to watch a titanic 6-4 6-4 6-7 6-7 9-7 Nadal victory.

THE LONGEST FINAL

At four hours and 48 minutes the contest between Federer and Nadal was the longest final in Wimbledon history.

Rafael Nadal
Nadal bites what is his fifth Grand Slam, his other four coming in Paris

The last shot was hit at nearly 2115 BST with Centre Court almost dark. Given that the rain interrupted play twice, from start to finish the match actually lasted six hours and 40 minutes.

That's not to say that the length of the contest on its own was a factor.

But the consistently high quality tennis on offer with twists and turns aplenty made this a unique sporting drama. It also proved just how fit the two players were to last that long.

FEDERER CLINGING TO HIS CROWN

At two sets down, 3-3 in the third and the score 0-40, Federer looked like he could kiss goodbye to a winning streak at SW19 which went back as far as 2002.

Watching crowds have become accustomed to seeing the 26-year old cruise into the final each year, and just when it is needed most, step up to show his champion's credentials.

Roger Federer
Federer produced some outrageous shots to turn the match around

But here, he was in a completely different place. The confidence, seemingly thumped out of him during the French Open final when Nadal only yielded four games, was brittle and it looked like he would slip to a straight-sets defeat.

In addition, not since 1927 had the winner turned around a Wimbledon final to win in five sets so the world number one looked almost doomed.

But as if suddenly calling upon all the finely-tuned memories from his five Wimbledon wins, he went for all-out attack and battled to win the third set in a tie-break, then the fourth to set up a thrilling finale.

The fact that he saved three Championship points, two in the pulsating fourth set tie-break, was proof of how desperate he was to be the first man in the Open era to win six straight Wimbledon titles.

RAFA'S UNRELENTING DESIRE

Nadal has been getting closer to Federer each year they have competed for the Wimbledon crown.

In 2006 it took the Swiss four sets to win and in 2007 Federer had to produce some of his best serving to triumph in five.

606: DEBATE
Here though was a Nadal with an improved game. He had won on the grass at Queen's with added pace to his serve, and the kick from his panic-inducing groundstrokes had given the likes of Britain's Andy Murray nightmares en route to this year's showpiece.

Nadal was broken only once during Sunday's match against Federer and after taking a two-set lead, he must have thought he was on course for victory, more so when he produced some astonishing passing shots to create three Championship points.

But with Federer unwilling to yield, Nadal, showing an unrelenting fitness, had the power of will to create a fourth.

The way the Spaniard redoubled his efforts in the final set after seeing Federer claw his way back from two sets down to 2-2 was as memorable as it was impressive.

It was hardly questionable before the match, but surely the 22-year-old is the fittest tennis player in the history of the game. Now though his will to win can enter the same territory.

FOURTH SET TIE-BREAK

This is the tie-break for a generation too young to remember the Wimbledon final between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe in 1980.

Back then Borg won after McEnroe took the match to a fifth set, winning their fourth set tie-break 18-16.

The record book says that Federer took this one 10-8 but that tells little of the swerving fortunes which, at that point, left the Swiss champion hanging on by the slimmest of margins.

At 5-2 down Federer looked like he was going out. A dramatic net cord from a tentative Nadal second serve and some robust serving from the world number one got him back to 6-6 at the change of ends.

Little did he or anyone else know that the most nerve-jangling moments of the match were about to unfold.

Having lost the next point, which he challenged, another pacy serve by Federer saved Nadal's first Championship point. With Nadal unflustered, the Mallorcan then produced a stunning forehand pass to eke out his second chance of making history.

But unbelievably, Federer matched Nadal's resolve and unleashed a beauty of a backhand down the line to save himself again.

BBC commentator Andrew Castle said at the time: "The two best passing shots of the tournament without doubt have just taken place on the last two points."

Two points further on and Federer had won the set to take it to the fifth.

THE RAIN AND DARKNESS

Although the rain is one of the biggest frustrations for players at Wimbledon, arguably on Sunday it played its part in adding to the drama.

It sounds perverse but sadly, this will be the final year that it will be a factor as from 2009 Centre Court will be the new owner of a roof.

Unlike many other sports, the lack of a tie-break in the fifth set gives a tennis match an open ending. Had Federer taken the match to 8-8 in the final set, with it getting ever more gloomy, it could still have gone to a Monday finish.

Not knowing was bad enough for an excited crowd but could it have played a significant factor in some of the players' shot-making? The desire to get things done may have meant that Federer was aiming to finish points early while Nadal was, as ever, happy to rally literally all night.

Federer alluded to the darkness after the match while Nadal said he was struggling to see the ball. Still neither of the pair complained too loudly and the 15,000 spectators on Centre Court will have to count themselves lucky to witness a match so unique.

GREAT RIVALRY

Like Ali-Frazier, Nicklaus-Watson, Prost-Senna and McEnroe-Borg this was the top two architects in their field slugging it out for their right to be the best.

The fact that it was the third Wimbledon final in a row for the pair showed how much was at stake, not only on grass but in the wider context of the game.

Fortunately for tennis fans, this could now develop into one of the best battles in sport, so long as the elder Federer has the appetite for it. He is currently 4-2 down in head-to-heads for Grand Slam finals and 12-6 down overall.

What is sure is that the pair have a mutual respect which has never threatened to boil over.

"It's disappointing for me that I am in the same time as the best player in history such as Roger Federer," Nadal said afterwards.

Federer, although dejected, was equally effusive: "Rafa is a deserving champion, he just played fantastic."

Few can be so determined to beat their foe across the net one minute, and then pay a glowing tribute to them the next. True champions the pair of them.

THE SENSE OF OCCASION

Some may have missed it but as he walked out on to Centre Court consumed with his thoughts on how to overthrow his nemesis, Nadal still had time to shake the hand of the last Spaniard to win at Wimbledon, Manolo Santana in 1966.

That 42-year wait comes a week after Spain won their first major trophy for 44 years in the European Championship. So there was justification for Nadal scaling not only the players box in celebration, but the royal one as well.

But what perhaps was more significant was the watching Borg.

If Federer had won he would have beaten Borg's record of winning five Wimbledon titles in a row. Nadal's stunning win meant he became the first person since the Swede in 1980 to win the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year.

The sense of history in the making was not lost on Borg who had shunned Wimbledon until last year. The rivalry between the two seems to have awoken his appetite for watching the game.

THE FUTURE

Last year with 12 Grand Slams in the bag, many said there were two tasks Federer needed to fulfil in order to seal his place as the greatest tennis player.

Roger Federer
Federer, with 12 Grand Slams, now faces competition on all surfaces

First he had to win the French Open, it being the only major tournament he has yet to win. And second overtake Pete Sampras' record of 14 Grand Slam titles.

Although he faltered at this year's Australian Open where Novak Djokovic picked up his first Slam, and at the French where again Nadal reigned supreme, many assumed he could take one step closer to Sampras' achievement at Wimbledon.

But all of a sudden that record looks a little less likely. With Nadal looking stronger than ever at Roland Garros, and finally finding a chink in Federer's Wimbledon armour, the Swiss has to quickly re-evaluate his targets.

Although Borg won his titanic duel with McEnroe in 1980, it was after McEnroe's victory between the two in the 1981 Wimbledon final that he walked away from the game saying he "did not have the same focus".

Whether it has the same effect on Federer is yet to be seen but making what many people consider the best player ever go back to the drawing board, shows just how big a victory it was for Nadal.




see also
Nadal wins epic Wimbledon final
06 Jul 08 |  Tennis
Federer stung by 'hardest loss'
06 Jul 08 |  Tennis
Borg on Federer
24 Jun 07 |  Tennis
Classic Matches: Borg v McEnroe
31 May 04 |  History


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