Editor’s note: This story originally ran in 2018 to mark the 10th anniversary of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal‘s epic 2008 final. With Federer and Nadal set to meet in Friday’s semifinals for the first time at Wimbledon since then, here’s a look at the match some believe is the greatest ever played. This story has been updated for this year.
LONDON — When Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal meet in the semifinals at the All England Club on Friday, both will have a good reason to pause and reflect, maybe grow a little teary, as they contemplate the passage of time.
It has been 11 years since Federer and Nadal played what many people believe is the greatest tennis match of all time. And it turned out to be more of a beginning than an end. More kickoff than final whistle. Prelude to a decade of ongoing accomplishments that aren’t yet ended.
That 2008 Wimbledon final was a conflict at once majestic and brutal, a riveting study in contrasts, with the aesthetics reflecting the deep elemental differences between the men: Rafa, the beach bum in his “pirata” pants and sleeveless shirt, lashing out topspin shots with abandon. Federer, in fitted shorts, with a thin headband girding that famously great hair, making even his most explosive forehand look like an artistic gesture.
This was the third installment of the Wimbledon “Fedal” trilogy, with Federer having won the first two in the finals in 2006 and ’07. This match commenced late due to a shower, then raged on for almost five hours, punching through two rain delays and into so deep a twilight that the Hawk-Eye line-calling system was no longer functional well before Nadal finally won at 9:21 p.m., 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7.
In this year’s semifinals, Federer and Nadal will meet at Wimbledon for the first time since then. If Federer’s mind should wander back that far on Friday, it will find surprisingly little to latch on to. “It was one of the matches I tried to sort of forget a little bit,” Federer said at Wimbledon in 2018. “I remember it being dark. I remember the passing shot down the line. I remember the things I said pretty much vaguely. I hardly remember there were rain delays, to be honest.”
Well, you can hardly blame him. What tennis player wants to be known as the greatest loser of all time? Federer acknowledged that it was one of his “hardest losses,” yet the winner hasn’t exactly been dining out every night on tales of that memorable evening in London.
Nadal’s stroll down memory lane has become a bit of a forced march. He, like Federer, is always asked. He, like Federer, always answers politely. But as Nadal said in 2018: “I am not thinking every day about that final. I am just focused on what I am doing today. But of course, in that moment, that final has been a very important step forward for me in my career.”
The principals might be treading lightly around nostalgia, but their peers have been happy to indulge in it.
“Of course I remember it,” said Alexander Zverev in 2018. “… That was the day also I think Spain became European champion in soccer, and Rafa won his first Wimbledon.”
Zverev was 11 at the time.
Garbine Muguruza‘s memory was a little more evocative: “I remember it was very dark,” the 2017 women’s champion said last year. “It was very dark when they finished. I think it was the limit. I remember because the court was, like, there was no grass anymore. Rafa winning, he was on the floor, all the flashes. Because it was, like, dark, you could see all the flashes.”
Muguruza was 14 at the time.
The only serious challenger to the honor bestowed by most on the 2008 match is the previous greatest match of all time: the 1938 Davis Cup match between the USA’s Don Budge and Germany’s Gottfried von Cramm — a titanic five-set struggle won by Budge against the dark backdrop of a pending World War II.
But that one has grown dim in the fog of time. The landmark match of 2008 had everything a fan could ask for, but in retrospect, there was one thing wrong with it: the timing. It happened too early in the rivalry. Tennis is about the perpetual tomorrow, and the subsequent exploits of these men somewhat dim the unique nature of that match, in their eyes and in some of ours. In another sense, that match established a new normal.
“[My] initial reaction [to the 2008 match] was, ‘OK, [I] got to win it again next year, ’09,'” Federer said. “And I did, in an epic one against [Andy] Roddick. That was beautiful after the heartbreak in ’08.”
Note Federer’s use of the words “epic” and “beautiful” to describe his win over Roddick. The reality is that players are perpetually forward-looking, wiping losses off the hard drive once they wring out what might be learned and put to use from them.
“I’m sure I took something away from it, but mostly positive, even though the moment was pretty hard,” Federer said. “It was a great match for many reasons. It also made me more human, potentially.”
He meant that the loss occurred at a time when Federer was achieving critical mass as a champion, having won five Wimbledon titles running, as well as four US Opens. Nadal had inflicted a serious dose of humility on Federer in the French Open final a few weeks earlier, allowing his Swiss rival just four games. The Wimbledon win suddenly, dramatically yanked Federer back to earth. It also marked the turning point in their rivalry. Federer has any number of good reasons to shy away from celebrating the match, but he isn’t that kind of guy.
Federer joked that he goes so far back with Rafa that one day, when they’re older, they’ll be sitting in rocking chairs, “talking about how it all was.” It might be a different conversation than the one Federer and Nadal are having with us now.
“For me, maybe it’s harder to talk about because I lost it,” Federer said. “For him maybe, because he won it, he also feels uncomfortable digging into it, which I think shouldn’t be a problem because that’s how you want to win your first Wimbledon.”
Nadal is both sincere and realistic. Much like Federer, he knows that the match is just one element in a lengthy highlight reel. That reel exists only because neither man put too much stock in what he had gained or lost in the gloaming on that July evening in London.
“I always have been very clear: That probably is one of the most emotional matches that I played in my career,” Nadal said. “Everybody knows that for me [to] win here was one of my dreams. After losing two finals, that final created a big impact in my career. The personal satisfaction that tournament gave to me is difficult to compare with other things.”
It also turns out to be a difficult thing to talk about repeatedly because that can make you feel like you’re waxing nostalgic, sitting on a porch in a rocking chair somewhere. And who wants to do that when there are still Grand Slam tournaments to win, 11 years down the road?