Federer Vs. Nadal: 'Strokes Of Genius'

It may have been one of the greatest tennis matches in history. Last year's men's final at Wimbledon pitted No. 1 Roger Federer against one of the only men who presented a challenge to him in the past, Rafael Nadal. The epic struggle took hours longer than most matches and led to a passing of the torch in men's tennis. Sports writer Jon Wertheim, who wrote about the match in his new book, Strokes of Genius, talks to host Jacki Lyden.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Now, turning to the world of tennis, there are two Supermen, and today one of them, Rafael Nadal, proved mortal. He was beaten at the French Open, where he had won 31 straight matches and four straight titles. The giant slayer was seeded 23rd. He's a Swede named Robin Soderling.

Now, tennis is not exactly a regular feature here on NPR. But last July at Wimbledon, Nadal faced off with the other leading man of tennis, Roger Federer. Their championship match went the full five sets, almost five hours in all, including two lengthy rain delays, a marathon that lasted well into the dusk, one of the best tennis matches of all time, and we're not kidding here.

And on the show, we knew we needed to do something and quick. So, we placed a panicked call to Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated. He was at Wimbledon. And we broke into the program just after Nadal pulled off a win for the ages.

Mr. JON WERTHEIM (Author, "Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played"): This was just sensational. I mean, it's just - you know, it's hard to sort of steer clear of cliche, but it was just one of those goosebumps sporting events. It was just perfect.

LYDEN: Jon Wertheim has written a new book about that Wimbledon final. It's called "Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever played." Now, that's a bold statement. Many tennis fanatics point to the 1980 final between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe as the greatest ever. So, Jon Wertheim, make your case. Why was this better?

Mr. WERTHEIM: I stand by that statement.

(Soundbite of laughter)

No, I think qualitatively, this was just a superb match. I mean, as you said, this went five sets, and yet there were only five double faults, and the points were so riveting. The Borg-McEnroe final, as good as that was, there was one set that was 6-1, not so competitive. These sets were all 6-4s and 7-6, and the last one, 9-7. And you know, it's funny. McEnroe was actually broadcasting that match, and Borg was behind the baseline, some sort of a dignified guest. And by the time the match was over, the two of them had conceded that yes, 2008 was now the best match ever played.

LYDEN: Yeah. Could you read a little bit from your introduction? It's really great writing.

Mr. WERTHEIM: Sure.

(Reading) Beyond their records, their rivalry was heightened by clashing styles. One could spend hours playing the compare-and-contrast game, Federer versus Nadal and bodies righty versus leftie, Federer's classic technique versus Nada's ultramodern game, Federer's feline light versus Nadal's bovine heavy, Federer's middle European restraint and quiet meticulousness versus Nadal's Iberian bravado and passion, Federer's dignified power versus an unapologetic whoomping brutality, Federer's Zeus versus Nadal's Hercules.

LYDEN: That's really, really good. Up to that point, Roger Federer had been the king. He had won five straight Wimbledons, and Nadal seemed to be the only guy capable of challenging him.

Mr. WERTHEIM: Right. It's part of what made this narrative so gripping, that for many years, Federer was this genius, this ultra talented player, and it seemed like the other players just sort of said hey, I've got the misfortune of being born at a time that coincides with this guy. I'll be number four in the world, and that'll be good enough.

And Nadal was really the first guy who really stood up and said, you know what, I'm going to try and take this guy down, and worked on his game and made certain sort of subtle tactical adjustments. And he kept getting closer and closer at Wimbledon. This was the third straight final they'd met. And finally, this was the match where he really completed this takeover. It was really sort of this regime change.

(Soundbite of tennis match)

Unidentified Announcer #2: First set, Roger Federer to serve.

Unidentified Announcer #3: The final at Wimbledon, 2008. Here we go.

Unidentified Announcer #2: Play.

LYDEN: You also say that in the very first point in the match, this was the perfect prelude. Why's that?

Mr. WERTHEIM: You know, like any sport, tennis usually has this feeling-out process where it takes a few games for the players to get warmed up. The first point of the match was this exceptional point where they're running each other all over the court, and it was just absolutely sensational, and Nadal won it with this no-way-in-the-world winner. And right away, they sort of set the tone with that point. And really, the level of tennis for the next four and a half hours didn't drop much.

LYDEN: So, Nadal took the first two sets, and he appears to be cruising to his first Wimbledon title. Then in the third set, Federer comes out and it's riveting, guns blazing, wins on a tie breaker despite a rain delay, and we're up to the fourth set now. Nadal was up five games to two, and he could have closed it out with one more point, but that didn't happen. What did?

Mr. WERTHEIM: Yeah, it was just amazing. And it's funny. As much as we've seen Federer, we've never really seen him, as the cliche goes, dig deep. We've never seen him sort of ask these questions of himself because he was just so talented, he'd usually cruise.

And here he was, down two sets to love, then suddenly, he's down a match point. And we saw a side of Federer that really hadn't been on display before, which is the real competitor, somebody who really showed a taste for battle.

(Soundbite of tennis match)

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Announcer #4: (Unintelligible) that looked very unlikely three minutes ago, when Nadal had three break serves.

LYDEN: Nadal had so many chances to win the whole tournament, and he kept letting Federer off the hook. Then comes another rain delay, excruciating. And then Nadal had some time to think about all those missed opportunities. What was that like for him? You talked to him.

Mr. WERTHEIM: You know, he was in the locker room, and his uncle, who's his coach, had come in. In the last rain delay, Nadal was playing so well, his uncle said, look, nothing I can do is going to help. You're playing great. Keep it up. And the uncle actually took a nap in the Wimbledon locker room during the final.

The second rain delay, they're in the fifth set. The situation's changed a little bit, and the uncle appears nervous. And this time, it's Nadal who comforts his uncle and says, you know what? I won the first two sets. I can win the fifth set. Don't worry. Everything's going to be fine. And it really was revealing. You know, you live for these moments. Nadal would be crushed if he'd lost this match, especially after coming so close, and yet he's the one that's projecting this calm.

Unidentified Announcer #5: And it just is going to take something special for somebody to end this match.

Unidentified Announcer #6: It might just take the clock. We're approaching 9 o'clock. I mean, one can imagine a 9:30 finish perhaps.

LYDEN: So, the match goes well past 9 p.m. local time. Now, Wimbledon isn't really equipped for that. What was it like so late at night?

Mr. WERTHEIM: It was getting increasingly dark, which sort of only added to this almost cinematic feel to it. The players were having a hard time seeing the ball. It was past 9 o'clock in the evening. They told Nadal at one point, you've got to win this game, or else we're going home and finishing on Monday. And it just, it seemed scripted from a cheesy Hollywood movie that right before dark, one player decisively wins this, and it went down to the last minute.

(Soundbite of tennis match)

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Announcer #7: (Unintelligible). Rafael Nadal is the winner.

LYDEN: Bring back the moods of each of those men right afterward.

Mr. WERTHEIM: It really was this dethroning. And you really felt as they stood there on the court, Federer, an emotional guy to begin with, is starting to leak tears, and his voice is starting to catch, and Nadal is overcome by emotion. The king of Spain is there. And there was one moment that still, to this day, just gets me every time.

They were both circling the court, and they're going in counter directions. And it's, you know, it's pitch dark. The flashbulbs are the only thing illuminating the court. Everybody's still just in this thrall, and they pass each other, and no choreography, nothing pre-arranged, they walk by each other and just sort of casually slap five. And that moment just gets me every time. It was just - it said so much about the moment itself, so much about their respect for each other. But it really was - you look back at that match, and it really was a big turning point in both of their careers.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Announcer #8: And the Wimbledon gentlemen's singles champion for 2008, Rafael Nadal.

(Soundbite of applause)

LYDEN: Jon Wertheim writes about tennis for Sports Illustrated. His new book is called "Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played," of course, until there's some replay, huh, Jon?

Mr. WERTHEIM: It'd be a while.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Thanks so much.

Mr. WERTHEIM: Thank you.

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