Five-set-match thrillers seldom get bigger than Sunday’s title clash between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon. For a man widely acknowledged as a clay-court specialist rather than a grass-court contender, Nadal looked so unbeatable from the baseline that on two break points in the third game of the last set, and two more in the fifth, it seemed the match was his for the taking. No one before Nadal had ever really challenged Federer in any of his previous 10 Grand Slam titles, leave alone stretch the Swiss great to a fifth set in a final. The way Nadal stood up to — and almost pulled off an incredible victory over — the defending champion, it’s a safe bet that he will win Wimbledon some day.
Not that anything can take away from Federer’s stolid play, which helped him capture his fifth consecutive Wimbledon title. Technically and tactically, there’s no doubt that he is one of the most complete players in tennis history, with his single-handed forehand, alternating serve and volley games and scintillating baseline play. His authority is so comprehensive on any court, and he raises his game to great heights so often that even celebrated rivals are made to look so ordinary. Federer’s groundstrokes have shades of a Jimmy Connors or a Rod Laver for their sheer artistry, technique and class that leave little room for the hardest hitters in the game. The statistical significance of Federer’s latest victory is that he not only matched Bjorn Borg’s run of five titles, but also captured his 11th major championship, which puts him alongside Borg and Rod Laver and lets him set his sights on his last three targets: making it an unprecedented six-in-a-row at Wimbledon, getting to 15 Grand Slams, and winning the French Open.
Statistics, however, only tell part of the story. Contemporary tennis may have changed a lot — because of enhanced technology and the ferocity of shot-making — from when the likes of Borg and McEnroe played out their classic encounters. But the passion remains, as Nadal and Federer proved on Sunday.