8 July 2008

It wasn’t just the best match, it was the best sporting contest that any of us will ever see. Yes, better than Coe-Ovett in Moscow, Watson-Nicklaus at Turnberry, or even, heaven help me, than Arkle-Mill House at Cheltenham in 1964. It was 4½ hours of one-on-one combat with the greatest prize at stake. To be exact, it was Ali-Frazier without the bad-mouthing or the blood.

The bad-mouthing point is crucial. For in the build-up and aftermath to what was the ultimate in heavyweight showdowns not once did Rafa Nadal utter a disrespectful word about the man facing him across the net, while the most a fevered media could extract from the courtly Roger Federer was the admission that Nadal’s endless delay on serve used to be a bit irritating. Other sports might remember St Paul – “If there be any virtue, any praise – think on these things.”

For Sunday’s match was proof that you can have full-on mental and physical confrontation without the need for verbal abuse. Let no one think for a moment that Nadal and Federer wanted this any less than a prizefighter does a title-belt. Federer may look serene but he has not won five Wimbledons without having steel behind the smile, and from the moment he walked on to the Centre Court a fortnight ago the body language told that he would fight to the core of his being to keep the crown.

As for Nadal, his hunger has been almost tangible since he came across to Queen’s the day after crushing Federer with that humiliating 6-0 final set on the red clay of Roland Garros. At Wimbledon Nadal has been focused to the point of being uncharacteristically nervous as the final approached and when he came on court he was as hyped up as any boxer, arms bare for action, sweat on his brow, jumping on the spot.

Forget the previous finals, this was the one that mattered and the sense of the raging bull about to charge the master matador was every bit as complete as when Smokin’ Joe Frazier stared up at Muhammad Ali at Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971. Back then the live vantage point for me was the screen in a smoke-filled Odeon Leicester Square; on Sunday it was the press seats on Centre Court, but in both cases the action was awesomely furious.

Almost too furious – in each event there was a gnawing feeling that the Ali figure was getting too involved with the rough stuff, in Federer’s case with trading blows from the baseline. The opening rally was an extraordinary battle of power hitting, sprinting movement and shot selection. We held our breath at the brilliant intensity. But the Spaniard won it.

Of course Federer did things, he was Federer. Yet when he ran round the backhand and blasted the cross-court drive, all too often it came back. As Frazier had done to Ali, Nadal was grinding him down. When the rain delay came you were grateful that Federer could get back longer to his corner. He had not yet made this the fight it should be. But he would.

As the darkness gathered he summoned up his powers from the deep. His down-the-line winner to save the third set might have been unbelievable but his searing backhand return on match point must have been hit on bat-like radar. But still it was not enough. For Nadal has a genius of mind as well as body. He has some sighting system which locks him on to the baseline, he has a grip and an intensity that has never been seen before. He blazes with aggression and then, wondrously, drips with simple, generous happiness when the fire has burnt out .He is old-fashioned values in modern dress. He is proof that good manners do not demand short back and sides and a three-piece suit – and that you don’t have to knock on the front door if climbing up on to the ledge enables you to thank your family.

At the end it was almost too dark to see the celebrations, but this match had long since suspended disbelief. All that was missing was the sight of Nadal, racket aloft, standing floodlit on the roof, like Brian May above Buckingham Palace on our Queen’s Jubilee Party night. In my memory, perhaps he did.

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