The crown passes

The famous grass courts of Wimbledon, the world’s pre-eminent tennis championship, give up their mysteries grudgingly, not least when it comes to players brought up on the slow clay courts of continental Europe. In finally unpicking their secrets and stopping the great Roger Federer a solitary match-victory short of surpassing a record he shares with Bjorn Borg — five Wimbledon titles in a row — Rafael Nadal has crashed through a metaphorical wall to cement his status as one of the greatest champions of our times. That the Spaniard triumphed in a match of gladiatorial severity and nerve-jangling compulsion after four hours and forty-eight minutes — the longest Wimbledon men’s final in history — is a tribute to his resilience and never-say-die spirit. If Wimbledon, with its mystique and rich history, often brings out the best from the players, Nadal and Federer, feeding on each other’s genius, conjured up one for the ages. For its sustained drama and artistic ingenuity, the 2008 final should rank with the very best seen in 122 championships at the All England Lawn Tennis Club. Federer may be past his peak but the champion stubbornly refused to yield ground on a court he has owned for over five years. In a match of shifting fortunes, in fading light, the relentless Nadal found his spark of inspiration in the deciding set to edge out the five-time champion.

Before Nadal, the last man to win at Roland Garros and then successfully survive the vagaries of the British summer and the capricious lawns of the All England Lawn Tennis Club was Bjorn Borg. Since 1980, few athletic feats have appeared quite as difficult to emulate as the conquest of the tortuously slow red clay of Paris and the unpredictable grass of Wimbledon back-to-back in a span of six weeks. Few great clay court champions, with the exception of Borg, have managed to tweak their game to suit the demands of grass as quickly as Nadal has managed to do. Over two years, the four-time French champion’s game has gathered strength on grass. His serve and footwork have improved remarkably and his forehand has greater variety now; backed by his tactical maturity and extraordinary willpower, these attributes have turned Nadal into a wonderfully versatile all-court player. The transformation that mattered even more was mental. From the time he first set foot on the Wimbledon turf, not for a moment did Nadal think he was on mission impossible. It is this gestalt shift in a typical clay courter’s mentality that was the key to his triumph, the first at Wimbledon by a Spanish man since Manuel Santana travelled on the London Underground to the Southfields station, walked to centre court, and beat Dennis Ralston in the 1966 final.

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