When we remember the great matches in tennis history, and when we think about Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon, one and only one answer comes immediately to mind: the epic, sweeping, weather-delayed, ending-in-the-dark 2008 final against Roger Federer. Those who watched the 2006 Rome final — which did not receive nearly the same amount of global attention — will tell you that it is the best Federer-Nadal match of all time, but for most people on the planet, 2008 Wimbledon set the gold standard and retains that distinction today, 10 years later.
Indeed, if Rafael Nadal’s Wimbledon career owns a pinnacle, it was that day-turned-evening-turned-night in 2008 when it took a great champion to dethrone a great champion on the court he had owned the previous five years (2003-2007). The 2008 Wimbledon men’s final had just about everything a fan or commentator could want. Books have been written about that match… and will continue to be written after the Fedal era ends. The ink and printing costs will be well worth it.
Yet, while Wimbledon finals and semifinals embed themselves deep in our memory banks and provide the lasting images of tennis history, the occasion of the golden anniversary of the Open Era of professional tennis is also an occasion to sift through the underlying moments which made iconic careers even greater than the soaring heights they had already achieved. For Nadal, the 2008 Wimbledon tournament made him a great Wimbledon champion, but the 2010 tournament made him a GREATER Wimbledon champion and, in the process, catapulted his grass-court body of achievement to another level.
If it is true that Nadal is the greatest surface-specific tennis player who has ever lived (and I think he is), the less appreciated yet profoundly substantial truth about him — and Federer, and Novak Djokovic, these three titans of a tennis golden age — is how formidable and accomplished they have been on all tennis surfaces.
Federer made five Roland Garros finals and seven semifinals, statistics which are likely to remain at those numbers given the Swiss’s unwillingness to play on clay out of fear of physical strain. Djokovic entered the 2018 French Open having made four finals and eight semifinals at Stade Roland Garros. Djokovic has won three Wimbledons, shutting down the idea — prevalent in 2013 after his loss to Andy Murray in the men’s final — that he would continue to struggle (relatively speaking) on grass.
So it also is for Nadal. Though especially strong on one surface — and though unable to make a deep run at Wimbledon in recent years (much like Federer on clay at Roland Garros) — his body of work on grass remains formidable. It merely hasn’t shown up in recent years.
The foremost Rafa experts — I call them “Nadalogists” — have surely memorized lots of facts by heart and therefore know a lot of the essential numbers connected to Nadal’s career. Those who haven’t closely studied Rafa’s portfolio might be surprised by the following fact:
Nadal owns more Wimbledon finals (5) than U.S. Open finals (4).
Nadal fans know about the Australian Open injury curse, so it’s not a shock to any Nadal fan that Rafa has more Wimbledon finals than Australian Open finals (also 4). Yet, the reality that Nadal has more finals at the one grass major on the calendar than either of the two hardcourt majors speaks to the completeness of his career. This sets the stage for another remarkable fact about Rafa at the majors:
Though he had to sit out the 2009 Wimbledon tournament due to injury, Nadal can still say this about his prowess at Wimbledon, which he will try to demonstrate and regain this year: This is the only major other than Roland Garros where Nadal has reached the finals in five consecutive appearances. Paris is where he made the final in five straight years (2010-2014), but he made the finals at Wimbledon from 2006-2008 and then again — after his 2009 absence — in 2010 and 2011. He has not come close to doing the same in Melbourne or New York.
This background explains why Nadal’s Wimbledon career — though carried to the mountaintop in 2008 — gained dramatically more historical resonance as a full body of work due to what he did in 2010 and 2011.
The moments when his 2010 Wimbledon campaign — and the subsequent building of a far greater Wimbledon legacy — hung in the balance were not in the lopsided 2010 final against Tomas Berdych, or the 2011 semifinal he won with relative comfort against Andy Murray after a hiccup-filled first set. No, the moments when Nadal arrived at a crossroads and built on previous Wimbledon successes occurred in the first week of that 2010 tournament. Rafa took a great Wimbledon legacy and made it greater, affirming himself as a notable grass-court champion as opposed to a man who had his “one moment in time” in 2008.
In 2012, when Nadal’s Wimbledon career went south, he lost a contentious (in more ways than one) five-setter against Lukas Rosol. The pattern which has ensnared and frustrated Rafa at recent Wimbledons — the aggressive hitter going for broke with a high-risk, low-margin game… and succeeding because of grass’s capacity to reward attacking tennis — was in evidence that day in 2012. Yet, that pattern wasn’t entirely new to Nadal. It emerged in the second and third rounds of 2010, when Robin Haase (still a talented player capable of feats such as a 2017 Montreal semifinal and winning the first set from Federer in Rotterdam this year) and Philipp Petzschner both took two-sets-to-one leads against the Spaniard.
The third-round match against Petzschner was especially notable since the German won an extremely tight and up-for-grabs third set against Rafa, taking a tiebreaker by a 7-5 score. Nadal put forth a lot of effort in the first three sets of that match, on the heels of a five-set escape against Haase in the previous round. Petzschner’s overall track record was meager, to say the least… but so was Rosol’s, and so was the resume of Dustin Brown, who also dealt Nadal a first-week loss at Wimbledon in more recent years. Nadal came up against a hot player playing with house money — absolutely nothing to lose — on Rafa’s least comfortable surface. Nadal had played a ton of tennis (he won the French Open in 2010), the first three sets were profound struggles, and his opponent had showed an enormous amount of resolve, more than anyone was expecting.
In recent years, Nadal hasn’t been able to solve this kind of riddle, but in 2010, he did. In 2012, Nadal won the fourth set against Rosol to even that match at two sets apiece. He lost the fifth when Rosol redoubled his efforts and kept red-lining his shots. In 2010, Nadal firmly turned back Petzschner in the fourth set but was able to stay on top of his opponent in the fifth, much as he had done against Haase days earlier.
Many believe (as I still do) that when Nadal can get to the quarterfinals of Wimbledon, and the back of the court gets especially worn down, Nadal’s movement and confidence improve. This is why he still (in my mind) has a chance to win this tournament. The problem has been getting to the quarterfinals. This has been the stumbling block of Nadal since 2012 at the Big W, but in 2010, he very conspicuously overcame it.
He roared through most of the four remaining rounds in 2010, once he got past Petzschner, the one exception being a quarterfinal against Robin Soderling in which he had to win a third-set tiebreaker to take a lead into the fourth set. Nadal — once he got through three rounds in 2011 — faced a tough challenge from Juan Martin del Potro in the fourth round (also needing a third-set tiebreaker win to avoid trailing by a set heading into the fourth), but was similarly untroubled en route to the final, where Djokovic defeated him.
Imagine, then, if either Robin Haase or Philipp Petzschner had defeated Rafael Nadal in that first week of Wimbledon in 2010. Imagine if that loss had begun what did in fact begin two years later against Lukas Rosol. Nadal would still have a Wimbledon title, and therefore still a career Grand Slam, but without his second Wimbledon title in 2010 and a fifth straight final (based on appearances at Wimbledon, not calendar years) in 2011, we would all think less of his grass-court achievements. It would be easier to minimize his all-surface achievements.
Yet, because of that double escape in 2010, we truly can’t pigeonhole Rafa like that. His feats on grass are too substantial, even in light of his drought since 2012.
These aren’t the kinds of moments the history books focus on, but they’re precisely the kinds of moments which lend texture, depth and meaning to the Open Era of professional tennis as it celebrates its 50th anniversary at Wimbledon.
Source: Julian Finney/Getty Images Europe