Wimbledon is the Mecca of tennis. The lush green courts, the combination of the Wimbledon green and purple with just the right touch of gold, the whites, the Royal box and everything else functioning in perfect synchronisation. This is as poetic as a tournament can get. The only thing that probably makes Wimbledon better is the likes of Roger Federer gracing the Centre Court adding to the perfect harmony. Wimbledon is more than just a trophy that the players compete for, Wimbledon is a feeling that every tennis player grows up with. Tennis players take pride in having played at the Wimbledon Centre Court at some point in their careers. I can say this with utmost certainty, Wimbledon is every tennis lover’s fantasy.
And blessed are those, who succeed in adding the golden trophy to their trophy cabinets. As there wouldn’t be any addition this year to the list of great matches played at Wimbledon, this gives us an opportunity to reflect upon the matches played in the past that have redefined the sport and the entire tour.
The 1980 Wimbledon final played between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe and the 2007 Wimbledon final played between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are amongst the greatest matches to have ever been played at the Centre Court. Both matches are quite similar yet different to each other. Different because both matches are set 27 years apart, during which the sport underwent significant changes in terms of playing style, rackets, strategies, the ask, the stakes and definitely the popularity. Similar because:
- Both matches featured the top two seeds and in both matches the top seed beat the second seed.
- In both the matches, the champion won his fifth consecutive Wimbledon title.
- The same players contested the Wimbledon finals the very next year with the previous runner-up winning the title.
- The winner was right handed while the runner up was left handed.
- Both Borg and Federer had been the undisputed kings of their respective eras, until they met their match.
- Both the winners now have sons named Leo (this has no relevance to the matches ofcourse!)
- The matches were the turning point in the careers of all four players.
Bjorn Borg was considered the rockstar of tennis and had been able to pull off what is considered as the most difficult task in tennis, ‘the French Open-Wimbledon double’, also called the ‘Channel Slam’. And Borg was able to do it thrice (1978-1980). After him, only two players have been able to repeat the feat, Rafael Nadal (2008, 2010) and Roger Federer (2009). Borg was nicknamed ‘the Ice Man’ for his composure and tranquillity. However, Borg was not always a calm and composed person. He was known to be very ill-tempered as a junior to the extent that his home club asked him to leave as he was considered to be bad influence on the other junior players until the then Davis Cup captain of Sweden took him in and made him the player that the world saw. Borg then became quite resolved and the exact opposite of his kid-version. He was meticulous, superstitious and did everything to keep his inner turmoil repressed. All of it helped him win 11 Grand Slam titles and retire at the age of 26, when most tennis players are about to peak in their careers.
Roger Federer had been the undisputed World No. 1 until Rafael Nadal challenged his dominance. Federer had already won ten Grand Slam titles and Nadal had troubled him on every surface but grass. Nadal had beaten him in the last three French Opens, however he had convincingly beaten Nadal at Wimbledon in 2006. Federer did not have much to fear until he actually witnessed Nadal unleash himself during the 2007 Wimbledon finals. Before this, Federer had had his share of close matches at Wimbledon, but no player had actually been able to challenge his dominance on grass. He had won every grass tournament that he had played in the last four years. Like McEnroe, he preferred a serve-and-volley game that is better suited for grass courts.
The runner-ups in both the matches, John McEnroe and Rafael Nadal, but for the fact that both are left handed players, had very less in common. McEnroe was temperamental and always cursing and throwing tantrums on court, inviting boos from the crowd and warnings from the chair umpires. McEnroe preferred a serve-and-volley game. On the other hand, Nadal, but for his appearance (as his appearance then was), is a thorough gentleman on court and treats everyone with utmost respect. Nadal has always preferred a baseline game and rarely comes to the net, and even when he does, his discomfort is evident. What is amazing is that even with this knowledge, most players fail to get him to the net. Given the slightest opportunity, Nadal would start dominating the rallies and take away the luxury of thought from his opponent.
What both McEnroe and Nadal shared in their respective matches was the hunger to win and winning by beating the best that the sport had to offer. McEnroe was the reigning US Open champion and the representative of the next generation of tennis players while Nadal was the three-time defending champion at the French Open and the guy to have taken a set off Federer at the 2006 Wimbledon Championships. Although, they had already etched their names in history, they were far away from what their opponents had already achieved, which definitely played on their minds. But after their respective matches, this changed.
Although the results of the matches weren’t what McEnroe and Nadal would have desired, the tennis fraternity knew that there was more to them than met the eye. McEnroe gained respect from his compatriots and the English crowd and showed that he was more than a lost kid on a tennis court and was in complete control of his actions. Nadal, on the other hand, proved that he was more than a clay-court specialist and he had what it took to beat Federer on grass. Every tennis enthusiast, who has seen these matches, would have let out a sigh of relief to watch Borg and Federer lift their respective trophies, for the mere fact that they have been able to command that kind of love and respect, and at the same time would have uttered a silent prayer for the runner-ups. Less did they know that their prayers would be answered exactly 12 months later.
Both these matches impacted the careers of all four players significantly. This proved to be the last Wimbledon title for Bjorn Borg and he retired from professional tennis a year later after losing the 1981 final to McEnroe. But, he had achieved what nobody could until then, he had successfully won five consecutive Wimbledon titles. John McEnroe went on to defend his US Open title by beating Borg and then beat Borg at Wimbledon a year later to win his maiden Wimbledon title. After the 1980 Wimbledon final, McEnroe could believe that Borg was beatable.
Roger Federer equalled Borg’s record of five consecutive Wimbledon titles. Although, it was much later that he could come up with a better strategy of playing against Nadal. But, I believe that had Federer lost the 2007 Wimbledon final, his career would have panned out quite differently from the way it actually did. The top players in the world are not much apart physically, and such important matches are decided in the minds and in favour of those who still have the strength to take another blow. Nadal has always had an edge over Federer mentally, which Nadal has exploited fully. There is no other explanation of their lopsided head-to-head record. Therefore, for Federer, the 2007 Wimbledon final was more than just winning a title, it was about him maintaining the belief that he was still the best and that his best years were not behind him. He could live with the fact that Nadal had denied him the elusive French Open title two years in a row.
Rafael Nadal had done his homework after his loss in the 2006 Wimbledon final and had done it well. He was prepared for the match and was completely ready to take on Federer. However, what we, as spectators, don’t understand is the tremendous pressure that the players play under. Nadal was up against Roger Federer, winner of ten Grand Slams and four Wimbledon titles, the World No. 1, in addition to whatever the media kept throwing at Nadal during his press conferences. It takes somebody like a Nadal or a McEnroe to sustain that kind of pressure before a match and come out and give the opponent a run for his money. Nadal never, for once, allowed the chatter to get to him and make him doubt his goals. He was also respectful yet determined and which is why he is one of the greatest players of all time.
The contribution of players such as Borg, McEnroe, Federer and Nadal to the sport is unfathomable. They have inspired so many young tennis players to pursue the sport and to believe in their abilities. The debate in respect of who the Greatest of All Time is something that the media keeps throwing around and will continue to do so. However, anyone who has been closely associated with the sport would agree that tennis is a very dynamic sport and every generation of tennis players brings something new to the table. Therefore, while people may come up with multiple yardsticks to determine who the greatest player is/was, the fact is that the sport witnesses great talents everyday and with the ever-changing dynamics, this debate is one which will never see the end of the tunnel.
The grass has always been greener!
Picture credits: pininterest, tennisworldusa, encyclopediabritannica