Fans have waited 11 years for Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal to meet again at Wimbledon, where the two legends seared their FedEx ATP Head2Head rivalry into memories with the 2008 final, one of the greatest matches ever played.
Nadal, leading by two sets to zero, held on to knock Federer off his SW19 throne and celebrate his first Wimbledon title. But, to date, Federer has had the last chuckle on the rye grass: he entered his 21st Wimbledon with a record eight titles. The Swiss, however, hasn’t faced Nadal at SW19 since their 2008 epic.
Ahead of their Friday semi-final, ATPTour.com remembers their three FedEx ATP Head2Head Wimbledon matchups.
2006 Final, Federer d. Nadal 60 76(5) 67(2) 63
The question – Could Roger Federer be beaten on grass? – was not a rhetorical one in 2006, two years after the surging Nadal introduced himself as a potential challenger to the Swiss. Heading into their 2006 final, Federer, the top seed and three-time defending champion, was riding a 47-match grass-court winning streak.
But while Nadal had proved a worthy fighter on clay and hard – the Spaniard had won 17 tour-level titles, including two Roland Garros crowns, all basically before his 20th birthday – he had yet to carry that success over to the grass. The 20-year-old was playing in his first Wimbledon final and his previous best finish was the third round.
The duo had split the season’s two first Grand Slams – Federer winning the Australian Open (d. Baghdatis) and Nadal Roland Garros (d. Federer). But during their second meeting in a Grand Slam final, it was Federer who began in hot form and maintained his level.
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The Swiss eased through the opener and broke Nadal when the Spaniard served at 5-4 to close out the second set. Nadal rebounded in the third, but Federer took early control in the fourth, breaking Nadal at 2-1 and 4-1 and eventually winning the Championships when serving at 5-3.
Federer, who captured his 39th career title and eighth Grand Slam crown, became the sixth man to secure four straight Wimbledon titles. He’d go onto have one of his best seasons ever, winning three Grand Slam titles and becoming the first man to reach all four Slam title matches since Rod Laver in 1969. Federer finished 2006 with 12 tour-level crowns.
2007 Final, Federer d. Nadal 76(7) 46 76(3) 26 62
Nadal had again beaten Federer in the Roland Garros final, the Spaniard’s third consecutive Paris title. And, during their second Wimbledon final, he showed he would be a formidable foe for Federer on quick surfaces for years to come by producing the best grass-court performance of his career despite having endured a draining fortnight.
Nadal, playing for the seventh consecutive day after rain wreaked havoc on the tournament schedule, showed his mental and physical toughness by pushing the four-time defending champion Federer to five sets for the first time in his 34-match win streak at the All England Club.
Federer, who had never lost a match at Wimbledon after winning the first set, claimed the first set tie-break despite Nadal’s gallant effort to save three consecutive set points at 3/6.
An attacking Federer made many forays to the net but Nadal had his blistering passes dialed in. The Spaniard saved a break point in the first game of the third set and then didn’t face another break point until Federer claimed the decisive break in the sixth game of the fifth set.
Having seen Nadal save 16 of 17 break points against him to win Roland Garros, Federer twice rallied from 15/40 in the fifth set to avoid going down an early break.
Federer, who clubbed 65 winners – including 24 aces and a plethora of crosscourt backhand winners – equaled Bjorn Borg‘s record of five consecutive Wimbledon titles. Nadal was attempting to become the first player since Borg in 1980 to win Roland Garros and Wimbledon in the same year, a feat he wouldn’t have to wait much longer to accomplish.
2008 Final, Nadal d. Federer 64 64 67(5) 67(8) 97
For the third year in a row, here they were, defending champion Federer and reigning Roland Garros champion Nadal. The two were owning the European clay and grass swings, making it six straight Roland Garros-Wimbledon finals between the two of them.
In one of the most eagerly anticipated matches of their 18-match rivalry, Nadal won the first set but fell Federer looked to have things under control in the second with a 3-0 lead.
The World No. 2 Nadal, however, fought back to silence the Centre Court crowd and take a two sets to zero lead. The third set was interrupted by rain, with Federer leading 5-4. The duo returned after a 71-minute delay and, despite windy conditions, held on for a tie-break. Federer forged ahead 5/2 and eventually clinched the set on his third set point.
The fourth set moved into an inevitable tie-break, which kept the thousands of spectators on Centre Court on the edges of their seats. Two unforced errors from Federer on the forehand wing gave Nadal his first championship point at 7/6. One shot and the Swiss’ reign would have ended right there, but again his serve rescued him.
Nadal, though, struck a forehand winner with Federer approaching the net for his second championship point at 8/7. Serving for the match, Nadal was drawn to the net by Federer who passed the 22-year-old with a backhand winner down the line. With Nadal’s confidence dented, Federer seized control of the tie-break and took the final to a decisive set.
More rain interrupted the match at 2-2 in the fifth set. After a 30-minute delay, the final resumed and as darkness set in, Nadal finally converted his fourth break point opportunity for an 8-7 lead after Federer hit a forehand long.
Another championship point went begging, but at the fourth time of asking Nadal clinched the 6-4, 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-7(8), 9-7 victory in four hours and 48 minutes. It was the longest final in Wimbledon history (since 1877). The battle for the No. 1 ATP Ranking had just intensified, and the greatest match ever played had just finished.
In the years since, the match has become commonly known as one of the greatest ever. Sports Illustrated tennis writer Jon Wertheim later wrote a book – which spawned a documentary – about the match, titled, “Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played”.