- The Washington Times - Monday, July 7, 2008

The annals of tennis history are filled with matches that promised a full-course meal but delivered nothing more than crumbs. But Sunday’s men’s Wimbledon final was a belt-busting, epic buffet that lacked absolutely nothing.

Consider the phrase “Nine-seven in the fifth.” Those words alone place the match in rarified air, and they say nothing about the finger-tingling drama that brought the contest to that point.

They say nothing about Rafael Nadal, the gritty Spaniard who dramatically improved his grass-court game to become the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to win the French Open and Wimbledon in succession. They say nothing about Roger Federer, whose ability to dig deep from two sets down to force a fourth and fifth set solidified his reputation as one of the greatest athletes the world has seen. And they say nothing about the rain delays that forced the match to be completed in near darkness, frustrating fans while also giving them a needed break from the record 4 hours, 48 minutes of tennis tension.

Last month, a well-known writer for ESPN led off a column with the question, “If I guaranteed you that the 2008 Wimbledon men’s final would be the best tennis match of the past 20 years, would you watch it? Amazingly, many sports fans would say no.”

It matters not whether he was correct. What matters is that Sunday’s match was not only the best of the last 20 years but perhaps the best ever at any venue. And rest assured there are millions of sports fans who are thrilled that they set aside their day for it and others are kicking themselves for missing it. The next time Nadal and Federer meet in a Grand Slam final - it’s a matter of when, not if - the level of anticipation will be at a unfathomable levels.

Matches like this one reinforce that tennis does not need fixing. In fact, at its highest levels it may very well be the world’s most perfect sport, a face-to-face competition that is somehow gripping in both its rawness and its elegance.

Nadal and Federer embodied those qualities Sunday. At times, points were won quickly on Nadal’s vicious forehand or Federer’s blistering serve. But at others, they were won after lengthy rallies in which each player kissed lines and pulled off every shot in his arsenal.

The world rankings, for now, will still show Federer at the top, and there remains little doubt he eventually will pass Pete Sampras’ record of 14 Grand Slam wins. But factoring in Nadal’s straight sets win over Federer at the French Open last month, it now can be said that Nadal wears the crown as the best player on the planet. On Sunday, Federer played magnificently, showing point after point the skills that had led him to five consecutive titles at the All England Club. And Nadal still won.

“I tried everything,” Federer told the Centre Court crowd after the match.

The Swiss star now will have two months to prepare for the U.S. Open, a title he has won each of the last four years. Nadal, meanwhile, has yet to master the hard-courts of Flushing Meadows, his best result a quarterfinal appearance in 2006. Waiting there will be Novak Djokovic, the third-ranked Serb who exited early from Wimbledon but claimed the Australian Open title in January, beating Federer in the semifinals.

Clearly, there is great potential for compelling tennis the rest of the year. But it will be hard to top Sunday’s drama.