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.
It’s quite possible that the most spirited exchange involving Williams this Wimbledon fortnight has already come and gone, with Sharapova taking a verbal swipe during her pre-tournament news conference over comments Williams made in a Rolling Stone interview that has brought the world No. 1 nothing but trouble.
In the article, Williams criticized the romantic choices of “a top-five player who is now in love.” The author surmised in an aside that the allusion was to Sharapova. Asked about the comment Saturday, Sharapova said she wished Williams would talk more about her on-court achievements, adding: “If she wants to talk about something personal, maybe she should talk about her relationship and her boyfriend that was married and is getting a divorce and has kids.”
The global media has been only too happy to supply the back story, noting that Sharapova’s boyfriend, 22-year-old Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria, had previously been linked to Williams. Dimitrov is a former pupil of Frenchman Patrick Mouratoglou, Williams’s current coach and presumptive new flame.
Williams informed reporters over the weekend that she had apologized to Sharapova in person for the remarks, which appeared in the same interview in which she questioned the judgment of a 16-year-old rape victim from Steubenville, Ohio.
Assuming both confine further remarks to tennis, the biggest fireworks at Wimbledon this year should come on the men’s side, which boasts four credible contenders for the championships.
Djokovic is the deserved top seed and has the easiest path to the final. But it’s unclear how he’ll rebound from a soul-sapping five-set defeat to Nadal in the semifinals of the French. Murray, the No. 2 seed, appears fully fit after a month’s break to ease an ailing back. And then there is Federer and Nadal.
The wrinkle in the seeding was caused by the hard-working David Ferrer, who recently vaulted ahead of Nadal in the world rankings. Though Wimbledon officials had latitude to tweak the seeding rather than slavishly adhere to the rankings, they didn’t. And that’s how Nadal was seeded fifth, placing him in Federer’s quarter of the draw and putting the two on track to meet earlier than they ever have in a Grand Slam tournament.
Nadal, however, is playing nothing like the game’s fifth-best player. He has reached the final of all nine tournaments he has entered since returning from a seven-month hiatus to address tendinitis in his left knee. And he won seven of those nine, including a straight-sets thrashing of Ferrer to claim a record eighth French Open title.
If Federer and Nadal advance to the final eight, it will surely be the most compelling quarterfinal in Grand Slam history. Nadal holds a 20-10 advantage in the rivalry and has won their last five Grand Slam meetings. But Federer has a way of defying time on Wimbledon’s Centre Court.
The victor’s path gets no easier. His reward would likely be a semifinal against Murray, with Djokovic, the 2011 Wimbledon champion, his probable opponent in the final.
Still, Nadal accepted his lot with grace, as did Federer.
“I like tough draws,” Federer told reporters at the All England club Sunday. “If you want to win the tournament here, you have to beat the best. That’s what I’m here for. I’m very happy to be back, no doubt about it. It’s always a privilege.”