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The athlete and the artist

The streak ended at 41, but Roger Federer did not allow his run of consecutive wins at Wimbledon to end without a titanic struggle.

Pursuing his sixth consecutive Wimbledon title, Federer found himself face-to-face with Rafael Nadal for the third year running. Not since Borg/McEnroe in the early 80s has there been such a sustained and starkly contrasting rivalry between two players at the very pinnacle of the sport.

Nadal is the great athlete, all bulging muscles and ferocious competitive intensity, with an effective monopoly on clay courts. Federer is the consummate artist, perhaps the last true one in the modern men’s game: his competitive fire burns no less brightly but his muscles are all on the inside, an unprepossessing physique masking a devastating array of tennis shots, in particular a forehand which frequently seems radar-guided, a total package which has rendered him effectively invincible on grass.

Anyone who watched the final – and there were 12.7 million UK viewers at its peak – will know that Nadal took the first two sets despite Federer having more breakpoint opportunities and that, after a rain delay, Federer exhibited a true champion’s heart by repeatedly facing down a series of crises – 0-40 down on his serve midway through the third set, 2-5 and then two championship points down in the fourth set tie-break, 15-40 and 0-30 down in consecutive service games early in the fifth – with a series of blistering aces and winning shots.

A lesser mortal than Nadal – that’s pretty much everyone – would have crumbled in the face of such repeated disappointments. He had put Federer right up against the wall, only to see the Swiss retaliate with possibly his best tennis of the tournament. And yet it is an indomitable spirit as much as his physical and technical skills that makes Nadal such a unique player. In the fifteenth game of the final set, Nadal repeatedly pushed Federer to the brink – three times he engineered a break point only to be firmly repelled, one a passing shot under extreme duress which may well have been the best single stroke of the entire tournament – before finally, almost incomprehensibly, he secured the precious break which allowed him to serve out a 6-4 6-4 6-7 6-7 9-7 victory.

At 62 games and 4 hours 48 minutes, this was the longest men’s singles final ever at Wimbledon. However, the story of the match extends far beyond a single day and mere statistics. Trace a line backwards which begins with the recent French Open final, where Nadal crushed Federer for the loss of only four games (the worst defeat ever for a reigning world number one in a grand slam final). Follow it through the 2007 Wimbledon final, where Nadal stretched Federer to the limit, squandering four break points in the fifth set before succumbing to a defeat which left him in tears in the locker room afterwards. And stop at the 2006 final, where Federer gave the Spaniard, still a novice on the surface, a masterclass in grass-court play in a four-set win.

With each passing year, Nadal has gradually added artistry to his athleticism: a greater variety of serve, solid volleying technique, the blocked service return. With each passing year, he has been better equipped to challenge Federer. And now he has finally defeated the master – and deservedly so.

Ultimately, Nadal won Wimbledon because he was able to learn from Federer’s artistry and ally it with his unparalleled athleticism.

It was an honour to watch Sunday’s match, even from a distance. But it has been an even greater privilege to see Nadal’s development over the past three years into a player who is truly capable of winning all four Grand Slam events, a feat which has been beyond Federer and, indeed, all male players with the exception of Andre Agassi over the past 40 years.

If that isn’t a scary enough proposition, bear in mind that Nadal only turned 22 last month. He is only going to get better.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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