Of the six Roland Garros meetings between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, most of them were relatively close. Four times the Swiss was able to snatch a set but not really threaten to achieve more. But this one time, in the 2008 Roland Garros final, Nadal handed Federer perhaps the most embarrassing defeat of his whole career.
The Spaniard’s clay-court build-up was as otherwordly as he made us used to. Nadal took titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Hamburg, losing just one match at the expense of Juan Carlos Ferrero in Rome. Two of these titles came with final wins over Federer, although neither of them really foreshadowed what was about to happen in Paris.
2008 was when Federer first started to look human again. After completely dominating the men’s game for the past three years or so (with the exception of one guy, Rafael Nadal), his results took a massive blow in that season. Whether it was down to the mononucleosis that he suffered from in the early stages of the year or just a string of unexpected losses, Federer’s confidence was really down.
But even in top shape, the Swiss always struggled to find a way to beat Nadal on clay. Coming into this final, he was down 1-8 to his rival on this surface. While it’s impossible to compare, the 2008 “version” of Nadal might have been the best we’ve ever seen. The Spaniard was racing through his opponents like a Corvette, giving just three games to Fernando Verdasco and Nicolas Almagro. The closest anyone played him was the up-and-coming Novak Djokovic in the semifinals, as the young Serb managed to take on the sets to a tie-breaker in a 4-6, 2-6, 6-7 loss.
Federer, while not nearly as untouchable, also enjoyed a very decent run at the event. Taken down in three previous editions by his younger opponent, he was desperate to avenge these losses now. Everyone kept asking when he would finally add a Roland Garros trophy to his collection and he was just one match away from having it happen again. But it was not until next year that he would finally claim the title on the red clay in Paris.
Growing in frustration
Playing as good of a defender as Nadal, the player who wants to stay aggressive has to find the right balance. There is a very thin line between taking calculated risks and trying to end the points too early. Knowing he doesn’t really stand a chance in extended rallies, Federer knew he has to cut the points short.
Nadal abused his rival’s biggest liability, handling high topspin directed at his one-handed backhand. Unable to get out of the excruciating pattern of having to hit multiple rally balls from his weaker wing (Nadal even directed over 75% of his serves to Federer’s backhand side), the Swiss was deciding to pull the plug at all the wrong moments. Expecting all the balls to his left-hand side also made it much tougher to position himself on the court as Nadal would often find Federer leaving far too much space in the forehand corner, simply awaiting yet another shot to his backhand.
Net play was also not a reliable option as Federer won less than half of the points there and went only 2/9 on serve-and-volley attempts in the entire match. Getting passed 13 times in the whole encounter was quickly taking the belief away from Federer.
The Swiss appeared completely lost. Nadal was running everything down with his impressive footspeed and forcing a galore of errors from Federer’s racket. In the 32-minute opening set, the Spaniard broke three times as his opponent fired just one groundstroke winner to 19 unforced errors.
Missing a crucial opportunity
But Federer finally loosened up and reminded Nadal a bit of how dangerous his forehand can be. The heat rose up and the Swiss had a period of 15-20 minutes when he looked like the better player. A pivotal moment of the match came at 3-3 as Federer fathomed a break point chance. He had all the time in the world as he managed to run down Nadal’s weak-ish drop shot attempt but failed to get his backhand over the net. Little did he know at that point that he was not to win a game in this final again.
Two serve-and-volley attempts in a row misfired and Federer found himself under pressure again. This time approaching the net mid-point he fired a decent ball at Nadal’s right-hand side but was left flatfooted with an almost half-volley-like backhand passing shot. The Spaniard didn’t look back and served out the set to fifteen.
Even without looking at any stats, you have to figure a guy like Federer would be extremely tough to bagel. The Swiss’ variety and sweet spot-hitting make it almost impossible to do it for any tennis pro. But what Federer was facing that day was not just another human tennis player but an untouchable machine.
Somewhat fittingly, the third break in that set was converted on another otherwordly passing shot. Nadal did what he had to do and served it out as Federer missed an inside-in forehand a bit long. To further highlight how uncanny that was, it was the first bagel anyone served to the Swiss since 1999 and it has never been done since.
A month later, Federer went on to lose at Wimbledon for the first time in six years. And the circumstances certainly didn’t help to cope with it as his conqueror was yet again Rafael Nadal. Fighting back from a two sets to love deficit, the Swiss finally had to succumb after 4h and 48min of play. This 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7 classic is widely regarded as one of the best matches of all time. Federer finally got back on the board with a title at the US Open and fast forward 12 years, both he and Nadal are still contesting for slams. Anyone calling it back then would be considered a maniac.
The Swiss never really figured out a way to keep up with Nadal on clay. With just one more win in the final at Madrid a year later, their head-to-head on the terre battue now stands at 14-2 for the Spaniard. While he later turned around their overall rivalry a bit with a 4-0 clean sweep in 2017, Nadal on clay (and especially at Roland Garros where he leads Federer with a 6-0 record) is still a fortress that is yet to be taken by the legendary Swiss.
Main Photo from Getty.