What is the more significant Championships in terms of drama, legacy and history:
Wimbledon 2008 or Wimbledon 2018?
The focus of Wertheim’s book and the subsequent documentary broadcast on Tennis Channel and available elsewhere is the 2008 final between Rafa and Roger. We know this, given the marketing for this recent piece marking the ten year anniversary of that historic match. Most people seem to think that is the greatest match of all time, a five-set epic between the games top two players at the time, and the real appeal (I guess) of Rafa making year-by-year head-way on Federer’s grass kingdom, finally overcoming Roger there on Centre Court in this 2008 final.
The focus of this post is to compare more the final outcome of each tournament: 2008 and 2018, and compare more the meaning of the 2018 men’s SF between Rafa and Novak and that 2008 final.
Both matches determined the winner of the tournament. For a few reasons, Anderson became an after-thought at the 2018 Championships, which is too bad. But that’s what happened.
We’re looking, then, specifically at the meanings of each of these matches. 2008 Men’s Final v 2018 Men’s second Semi-final. For obvious reasons.
Again, in terms of real significance and narrative, which match and eventual tournament result has more meaning?
Federer v Nadal Wimbledon final 2008
This was a great match. The optics are ingrained in our subconscious. Federer had been doing things to our tennis imaginations for about four years, winning almost everything in sight in a way that brought a style and class to the game that seemed an appropriate evolution of the sport. It’s been said many times: Federer has a foot in the more traditional style of tennis, a game played with more finesse and grace, and a foot in the more modern game, dependent more on power and fitness, base-line and top-spin.
These are absolutely the ingredients that separate the traditional from the contemporary. Federer, part of his charm and greatness, seemed capable of dominating using this brilliant hybrid style. Watching Federer was watching the history of tennis playing-out before your eyes.
Nadal was the barbaric personification of the modern game reliant on new racket and string technology, power and fitness and base-line and top-spin. Pretty simple yet powerful contrast. Nadal, to the delight of many fans, was coming for Federer, whose grass kingdom looked more and more vulnerable given the previous two years’ final results.
Federer won the 2006 WB final 60 76(5) 67(2) 63 and the 2007 final 76(7) 46 76(3) 26 62.
If the writing wasn’t on the wall with those two results, the trend, let’s look at what was happening off the grass especially since grass is about one month long, which is not very representative of the game, to be honest (side note: clearly I have my own theories and understandings of the game, which does include a high valuation of Wimbledon given the history, the style, etc. But I find it quite interesting that nearly everyone with a strong read on the sport, who follows the sport, knows the history, etc., believes that Wimbledon is the most prestigious title in the sport, the highest accomplishment. I agree and disagree, but by making this claim, often for the embellishment of certain players, one builds a case for or against other players on the same token, so to speak).
The breakdown of this rivalry reveals, looking back at 2008, that the 2008 WB final was just not that big of a shock or upset. Sorry to disappoint.
First of all, the grass had been changed drastically by that point. If you watch the match with this in mind, you should see some real similarities to clay. This is a match played essentially from the BL. The points are athletic and brilliant, Federer’s BH, for instance, still holding-up some on this surface against the balloon ball FH assault of Rafa. But the push to make the grass less of a server’s massive advantage at SW19 was well underway and in fact a done deal. There is no mystery here. Everything in the sport encouraged an accommodation of the BL-oriented game, from development in racket technology to court surface. Benefit to Rafa.
Other signs pointed to this being Rafa’s match to lose, as well. He’d made headway on the grass (won Queen’s in 2008, beating Novak in the final no less), reaching the previous two finals, getting closer and closer to matching Federer on the grass.
Imagine the psychology playing-out at the top of the tour. Federer knows Rafa is coming (in grass results alone).
But the wear-and-tear on clay, as well. Here’s how their H2H looked coming into 2008:
2004: 1-0 Nadal (Miami R32)
2005: 1-1 Federer (Miami F) Nadal (RG SF)
2006: 4-2 Federer won only WB and the Masters Cup (year-end); Nadal’s clay domination in full-swing.
2007: 3-2 Federer WB, Masters Cup and Hamburg (rare clay win over Nadal); Nadal wins at Monte Carlo and RG, easily.
2008: 4-0 Nadal includes here his complete dismantling of Federer in the RG final 1 3 and 0.
One can see the trend, see the confidence building in Nadal against his tour superior.
Lastly, the calendar titled a bit to Nadal, as well.
2008 French Open played May 25 – Jun 8.
2008 Wimbledon played Jun 23 – Jul 6.
Federer is a big boy and can certainly lick his wounds in two week’s time, but one can see that this was pretty much back-to-back with such brutal tennis on the menu for these athletes (we went over this in HRFRT; the entire tour structure/format seemed a bit more taxing back-in-the-day; Masters final matches were Bo5 up until 2008 or 2009, for instance).
Credit to Nadal for making the necessary progress in his game, for continuing to find belief and using that nearly unmatched resilience to hunt-down Federer on tour, in general, and finally at Wimbledon in 2008.
I would argue that the upset in that GMOAT wasn’t Nadal’s victory, necessarily, but the fact that Federer, down 0-2, won those third and fourth set TBs. Those were epic: again, the writing was on the wall for Roger; the fourth set TB is truly must-watch with Federer going down 2-5 and Nadal having two serves to close-out the match. Federer saved two MPs in that fourth set TB. That, no doubt, was the peak drama — that Federer could possibly maintain order, stave-off this inevitability of Nadal serving for the championship, up two sets to one, in command, fresh off another RG route of the Swiss.
And of course the element of daylight or lack thereof. Pascal Maria acknowledges that the match should have been suspended; there’s controversy either way, unfortunately. They were playing in the dark, virtually, yet postponing the fifth set, the last couple of games even, would have been terribly awkward.
In the end, brilliant competition, but for me as briefly explained above there were several factors that render this not very shocking, at all.
The Roland Garros hang-over finds a little reconciliation with Ljubičić‘s discussion of this very issue when he took the helm back in 2016. Ivan has said the clay, from the beginning, gave Nadal a massive advantage over other players. To Nadal’s credit, he’s been the most resourceful player in the sport’s history — but that doesn’t mean you ignore the necessity of such resourcefulness. This annual concession on the clay took its toll on many players, including, of course, Federer.
In all his nonchalant brilliance, Roger was practically sleep-walking into that Wimbledon 2008 buzz-saw. A more shrewd strategist, like the Croatian (talk about resourcefulness or grit) would have skipped some of that clay carnage to maintain a more confident and intimidating presence, in the case of Federer.
Only two weeks after that absolute murder in Paris, with a fresh bagel to take home and cherish, Federer can’t be surprised, can he? Conversely, knowing he’d gone five the year before, rolling along in 2008, securing his Queen’s Club tune-up title, confident as hell against his vulnerable (and favored) foe, Nadal’s time had come, right?
In what becomes a theme in my discussion of so much of this history, we have to consider a larger view of the period, the event, etc. This is the nature of the discussion above: for me, looking at the bigger picture (context), the result of the 2008 WB final is not that surprising, much of an upset, at all; instead, the real drama becomes those TBs and the humanity of Pascal Maria.
Nadal overcame Federer, won Wimbledon: the sense one gets from the hype surrounding the story is he’s taken over the sport, the future is now, and so on. Federer, in his brilliant nonchalance, brushes off the GMOAT and wins the U.S. Open about a month later, his fifth in a row (that was another factor of the 2008 WB final: Roger going for his sixth WB in a row. Does that make 2008 an easier proposition? Think again, tennis fan).
A year later, Federer wins the French Open and Wimbledon (he lost in the final of the year’s first major to Nadal, tragically, and lost in the U.S. Open final pretty tragically, as well, to Del Potro. He then won the 2010 AO). The point is only that despite all of the hype around the match, the 2008 WB final, the only shock and drama for me was whether Nadal could win that in 3 or 4. Too much momentum on his side, too much pressure and insecurity on Federer’s.
Djokovic v Nadal Wimbledon semi-final 2018
How does this match, other than in the focus of this post, relate to the 2018 Wimbledon Championships?
First let’s look at some of the tennis of both matches.
Here’s the aforementioned fourth set TB of the 2008 final. Federer’s escape here should have spelled doom for the Spaniard, but Rafa would not be denied.
Here are some highlights of Nadal v Djokovic Wimbledon 2018 — below.
The third set TB starts at around 10:00. Pretty epic TB, as well. The fifth set, of course, is very tense. These boys are pummeling the ball, shades of Australian Open 2012, chasing, reaching and passing, a defense-to-offense how-to, brilliant BL tennis.
In fact, this match would have been made-up entirely of BL exchange had it not been for Nadal’s obsession with the drop-shot. Quite unappetizing, kinda your poor man’s S & V.
Both are tremendous matches without question. Who is to say which tennis is more inspiring? I say the 2018 match only because these two have a similar approach, a longer history together (believe it or not) and watching Novak exhibit really no weak side, use the DTL BH to near perfection against this most difficult opponent makes for a great chess match.
But let’s talk about match significance.
Which match resonates with more importance to the ATP narrative in terms of how the match affects the season, or how the match affects legacies?
How big of an event was Wimbledon 2008? Here’s really why that was so big: this was Nadal’s first non-clay major. As I have pointed-out on several occasions, Nadal and Co. worked their esteemed clay monstrosity to near perfection, had that surface down to an art; the next phase was to reach beyond the clay. This took some time and some blood, sweat and tears.
According to Uncle Toni, Rafa was inconsolable after 2007 Wimbledon. Devastated. Tearful trauma. Hard courts were still a few years away, but the grass conquest was quite meaningful we can be sure.
Other than that, perhaps the Fedal H2H began to pick-up steam? Still, as I said above, as the sport is bigger than two players’ H2H, after the 2008 WB final, Federer played in the next six major finals, winning four of them. Not too bad. Grass, clay and hard courts made-up that 2008-10 run. Federer was still fairly prolific despite the 2008 WB loss.
And believe me: the focus of Strokes of Genius (the popular narrative) wants you to think that this GMOAT really changed tennis.
Federer continued to win on all surfaces (got his RG in ’09) and Nadal continued to win on clay though the seal had been broken so he was able to find some success beyond Paris.
Really Now: This 2018 SF
This Djokovic v Nadal SF has a bit more for us to ponder.
First, let’s consider the overarching narrative of the golden era for a second or two. How would you describe the coexistence of the Big 3? Djokovic is the youngest of the three, arrived on the scene a few years after Fedal had been going strong, especially Federer who’s about six years older than Djokovic.
By the end of 2008, Djokovic had his first major (AO) and Federer had 13 majors (Nadal had 5 majors by that time).
Even these numbers suggest what happens to be a pretty accurate account of the three musketeers of this golden era: Djokovic has been playing catch-up, partly because of his age and partly because that’s just the way it is. One can’t really say Djokovic is inferior to these two (he has the upper hand on both H2H ha ha), but for whatever reasons, he’s been behind.
Federer’s age and weak era argument will be used by many to explain how he got so out front of Novak. They’ll say Nadal’s clay dominance gave him an advantage in this comparison.
Novak has lost some finals he shouldn’t have, he’s had some odd dips in production and consistency, but I think it’s okay just to say he’s been playing catch-up with is older tennis brethren, who go by Fedal, since the beginning.
I love this foreshadow: during the Wimbledon 2008 final, as the tennis world congregated around the raging inferno that was an over-hyped GMOAT, Novak had gotten himself onto the scoreboard earlier that year with his first major in Melbourne.
That’s the first small but important connection between 2018 and 2008.
Novak has had to pretty much play the court jester, be the trouble-maker, crash the party. He did so in 2008 from quite a distance (he did beat Federer in the AO SF that year). In the ensuing years he would prove to be a much more chaotic force, on occasion destroying Fedal’s dreams, but then losing to a Murray, Nishikori or Wawrinka. He went away at times, his latest was at the end of 2016. That was terrible timing.
2018 Wimbledon marks the return of Djokovic from this latest tennis hiatus.
As trifling as you want to call the foreshadowing disturbance of 2008, with Novak winning Melbourne, getting his first major while Fedal duked it out for the orgasmic crowd and media in Wimbledon, his disturbance of 2018 could not be more profound. You and I know how much the establishment wanted a Fedal 2018 final.
To be clear, when Novak took his latest and greatest extended vacation from the tour, Fedal have absolutely taken-it-out on their little tennis brother. They’ve each added three majors!
The dynamics here are truly familial, as in the little shit who’s been kicking our ass got the flu, mom made him stay in bed, so we took back the neighborhood, refashioned the furniture in the tree house out front.
And there’s Novak, in his bedroom on the second floor, looking down at his two older siblings running the neighborhood, beating-up all the other kids and quite frankly showing very little sympathy for their ailing bro.
I’ll say it to my grave: the Rome 2018 SF was all I needed to see. Novak was clearly coming and Nadal, the body language cracked the court, knew it.
This 2018 Wimbledon SF represents Novak’s salvation. He saved tennis in the process and there are many tennis fans out there who know exactly what I’m talking about.
This match has so much more resonance and significance than WB 2008 because THIS is the narrative: Djokovic continues his fight to remain a player in this arrangement. Indeed, this era involves, undoubtedly, three tennis gents who’s highest levels are equally genius in their own right, their own sovereignty, unplayable, inspiring, whose followings will go to bed and to their graves replaying points, victories and the feelings of shame, of the cursed, the forsaken, the forbidden deficiencies of their hero’s games.
I truly enjoyed 2018 because I saw it coming — about which I wrote.
He stopped the bleeding — go watch that third set TB and the fifth set: holy shit. Was Novak destined to win that match? I’m afraid he was. I’m afraid that’s the final straw.
The tennis narrative changed drastically on that SF outcome. The 2008 final had negligible influence on any of those legacies. Nadal would have broken through eventually. He’s too good, too determined. Federer continued to win, too.
2018, on the other hand, meant so much more. Fedal 2017-18 is, quite frankly, done. Would Federer winning in NYC have a little extra glam and glitter? I will not deny that. But Fedal was served notice. Little bro is ready to do battle again.
The family analogy just works.
The father and son moments in the aftermath of 2018 WB only gift-wrapped this tennis event.
For good. Something we need more and more of these days, in this world: Good.