Alastair Eykyn: the 2008 Final, Roger Federer v. Rafael Nadal

The single greatest sporting occasion I’ve had the pleasure of being at was the Wimbledon men’s singles final in 2008. I’ll never forget it as long as I live. It’s been described as the greatest tennis match of all-time, and with good reason. It featured two great champions in Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, locked in arguably the most fiercely contested period of their epic rivalry. They had played out a couple of barnstorming finals in the previous two years, and Roger Federer had won them both. He was five times champion. Wimbledon was his natural habitat. Centre Court was his court.

I was commentating alongside Jonathan Overend for BBC Radio. In the cramped little commentary box that sits in the corner of the most famous court in the world, we had former Wimbledon champions Pat Cash and Michael Stich as our guest summarisers. Both were spellbound. The match was played out over a total of seven hours, because of the rain delays, which only added to the drama. The very first rally of the match lasted fourteen shots. Fresh off the back of a thumping win over his Swiss opponent at the French Open final just weeks earlier, Nadal went two sets to love up. Federer came storming back to level the match, with a fourth set tie-break that took the breath away - he had trailed by 5 points to 2 and had a championship point at 7-6. The quality of the tennis in the gathering gloom defied belief, and Federer held to force a decider. 

It all came down to the fifth set, which will almost certainly go down as the most exciting set of tennis ever played. It so nearly didn’t happen at all. At 2 games all, and 7.53pm, the rain returned, and the prospects of finishing the match that day seemed bleak. Mercifully the shower lasted just half an hour, and the two titans resumed as the darkness descended. Honestly, you had to be there to understand just how dark it became. At one stage of the fifth set (Jonathan was commentating at the time) I nipped out of our commentary box, just to get a feel for the gloom outside. The lights from the scoreboard were illuminating the court. It was all you could do to make out he yellow fluffy ball that was being battered from end to end with a venom and bite that was incredible to witness. How Federer and Nadal sustained the quality of the tennis I will never know, but it never dropped. Rather, it felt like the standard just kept rising, and the 15,000 lucky souls inside the Centre Court were witnessing history, witnessing greatness. The intensity of competition was off the charts.

At 7 games all in the fifth set, Federer finally faltered and Nadal secured a break of serve. It was just as well, as the tournament referee had already decided to postpone the match if it reached 8 games all - there simply wasn’t enough light to continue. Hawkeye had even switched itself off as a result. So leading 8-7, Nadal served for the championship, and although Federer saved one more match point, the Spaniard sealed it after 4 hours and 48 minutes of spellbinding tennis, which finished at 9.16pm. He collapsed to the grass in celebration of a first ever Wimbledon crown, the King had been dethroned - and the master of the clay courts had conquered the grass. It was an “I was there” moment, and sometimes I have to pinch myself that I was one of the lucky ones. I don’t expect to see anything that majestic for the rest of my sporting life. But I have a memory to treasure forever.

Memory added on April 20, 2021

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