Nadal ended up snapping Federer’s chokehold on Wimbledon’s coveted trophy in 2008, prevailing 9-7 in the fifth set of the 4-hour 48-minute final and proving in the process that his wizardry extended beyond clay.
But time has robbed a bit of luster from Federer’s game, just as years of pounding have exacted a toll on Nadal’s knees.
Should they meet again this Wimbledon fortnight, it would come in the quarterfinals — far too soon for fans who have reveled in their clashes of grace and grit over the last decade. Federer and Nadal, after all, have won nine of the last 10 Wimbledon titles, with the Swiss claiming seven and the Spaniard two.
“Absolutely wrong!” is how three-time Wimbledon champion John McEnroe characterized a possible quarterfinal pitting Nadal, who is 43-2 since returning from a seven-month layoff because of injury, against any one of the world’s current top three — Serbia’s Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray of Britain and Federer.
If Wimbledon’s draw ends up the competitive train wreck that McEnroe feared, it’s the inevitable result of the logjam of talent at the top of the men’s game.
The women’s field stands in stark contrast. One player — in fact, one name, tells the story. Serena.
At 31, Serena Williams has never looked more fit, more confident or more fully in command of her game. Riding a 31-match winning streak, she opens play as a prohibitive favorite to win her sixth Wimbledon and 17th major overall, which would put her within one of tying Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova’s 18 for fourth most all time.
Barring injury or an uncharacteristic lapse of will, the only intrigue revolves around which player Williams will face in the final.
“She’s not only in the best place I’ve ever seen, I think she’s the best player that’s ever lived,” said McEnroe, who’ll provide commentary for ESPN. “She’s just a level above anyone.”
Williams’s most formidable rivals, No. 2 Victoria Azarenka and No. 3 Maria Sharapova, are in the opposite half of the draw. Another semifinal between the hard-hitting screechers could be the highlight of the women’s tournament. Azarenka leads their budding rivalry 7-6, but Sharapova won their most recent meeting, on the clay at Roland Garros, to earn a spot in the French Open final.
But for all their vaunted power, neither Azarenka, 23, nor Sharapova, 26, has shown she can withstand the all-out barrage of Williams’s serve, strokes and competitive fire. Azarenka is 2-12 against Williams. Sharapova is 2-14 and just weeks removed from a 6-4, 6-4 defeat at the French despite playing remarkably well. It was Sharapova’s 13th consecutive loss to the American, whom she toppled in the 2004 Wimbledon final at age 17.
Given that clay is Williams’s weakest surface, as it defuses her most punishing shots, it’s difficult to see Sharapova, Azarenka or any rival putting her on the defensive on grass, which suits Williams better.