Commentary

Nadal now halfway to Federer's mark

Updated: July 4, 2010, 2:12 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- When Bjorn Borg, the silver-haired Swede, viewed the Wimbledon final Sunday from the Royal Box, he may have been watching a back-to-the-future version of himself.

In beating Tomas Berdych 6-3, 7-5, 6-4, Rafael Nadal became the second-youngest man in the Open era, after only Borg, to win his eighth Grand Slam singles title. It is almost difficult to grasp, but Nadal -- at the precocious age of 24 years and 31 days -- has already matched Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Fred Perry and Ken Rosewall with eight majors.

For Rafa, it was the second title at the All England Club in three years after missing last year's tournament with sore knees. Nadal, after losing to Roger Federer in the 2006 and 2007 finals, has now won 14 straight matches on these glorious lawns.

"This year, I came back and to have the trophy in my hand is more than I can dream," Rafa told the crowd on Centre Court afterward.

How difficult was it to miss last year's event?

"Yeah," Rafa said, "[it] was probably one of the toughest moments in my career. Winning here was always my dream. I did it two years ago, did it again this year. Unbelievable."

Although last year's men's final ended with a 16-14 fifth-set victory for Federer over Andy Roddick, the only drama in this 133-minute match was what Nadal would do after securing match point.

After a sweet forehand cross-court winner, it turned out to be the standard fall-to-the-back, head-in-hands prone exultation in a cloud of dust at the baseline. After embracing Berdych, though, Nadal did an unprecedented forward somersault and, hips thrust defiantly, fists clenched, threw back his head and screamed.

"I think the biggest difference between us was that when he got a chance, he just took it," Berdych said. "He gave me one in the second set, one in the third set and none of them I can bring it to my side.

"That shows how strong he is."

Nadal now owns both the French Open and Wimbledon titles, as he did in 2008, and as Federer did a year ago. Nadal is 8-2 in major finals.

There can be no further argument -- Nadal is back as the No. 1 player in tennis. After picking up 2,000 unfettered points for the victory, he now holds 10,745 points, some 3,840 more than No. 2 Novak Djokovic. In the past three months, Rafa has won titles in Monte Carlo, Rome, Madrid, Roland Garros and Wimbledon. The only loss in his past 32 matches was to Feliciano Lopez in the Queen's Club quarterfinals.

[+] EnlargeRafael Nadal
AP Photo/Anja NiedringhausFor the second time in his career, Rafael Nadal has swept the European majors.

Berdych, too, will land in the top 10. He reached his first major semifinal last month in Paris, and when he took to Centre Court, he did not look like a man playing in his first major final -- or someone who had lost six straight matches to his opponent. Rather, Berdych was uncommonly composed and efficient, winning his first three service games. The fourth, however eluded him.

A severe Nadal forehand forced a forehand long, and then Berdych committed his first unforced error of the match, a backhand sprayed long. A superb, running forehand that looked like defense and suddenly passed Berdych for a down-the-line winner gave Rafa three break points. He converted the second, pounding another second serve for a backhand, cross-court winner, and took a 4-3 lead.

Nadal won his service game at love, then broke Berdych a second time for a neat, 34-minute first set. Berdych played better in the second set but at 5-6, serving for the tiebreaker, Berdych's long, measured forehand let him down. Three times he had plenty of time to line up the shot and three times he fired it long.

And so, the match was effectively over; Nadal has lost only one match in his entire career when leading two sets to love, to Federer in Miami in 2005. The last break came, appropriately, in the final game when Nadal extended the point and finished it with that cracking forehand.

Berdych, whose serve carried him past the No. 1-seeded Federer and No. 3 Novak Djokovic, could land only 59 percent of his first serves. At the same time, he failed to break Nadal's serve even once, a real indicator of how one-sided this match really was.

If you are wondering what an eighth major title before the age of 25 means for Nadal in the annals of history, consider that the three other men who achieved this in the Open era were Federer (16 majors), Pete Sampras (14) and Borg (11). That's not a bad golf foursome.

And now, with a few months of summer ahead of us and a bit of free time, the statisticians will ponder the metrics. How will the Grand Slam singles arms race between Nadal and Federer play out?

Rafa, with eight majors, is now halfway to Federer's 16. With Federer turning 29 next month, Nadal is nearly five years younger. In only his 25th career Grand Slam event, Nadal is 8-for-25, while Federer had won only five at that stage of his career. But Federer went on to win 11 of next 20 majors -- an astonishing rip of success.

Nadal's coach, his Uncle Toni, was asked after the match if he thought Rafa was as good as Federer.

"No," Toni said flatly. "Federer, he won six times here. Rafael only two. And Federer has 16 Grand Slams, and Rafael only eight."

Will Rafa ever catch Federer?

"Very difficult," Toni said. "I don't know, but if I put money, I say no."

Although Federer has been blessed with relatively good health -- in part due to his clean, smooth style -- Nadal's wrenching, physical game already has worn on most of his various joints. There have been three notable scares in the past year alone. Tendinitis in his knees forced Rafa to miss Wimbledon last year, and in this year's Australian Open, down two sets and 0-3 to Andy Murray in quarterfinals, Nadal retired because of a knee injury. As recently as his third-round match with Philipp Petzschner here, he called for a trainer four times to consult on his sore right knee and left bicep. And though Nadal won that match in five sets, it underlined how vulnerable he can be physically and how quickly it can turn.

Charismatic actor James Dean was 24 -- the same age as Nadal -- when he died in a California car crash in 1955. Gunslinger Billy the Kid and singer James Morrison also left the stage early. Dazzlingly talented running back Bo Jackson left football at the age of 29 with a degenerative hip injury in 1991, and left-handed pitcher Sandy Koufax won three Cy Young awards in a dominant span of five seasons but was forced to retire at 30 because of an elbow injury.

Perhaps the best parallel is Borg himself.

He won 11 majors, then abruptly walked away at the age of 26, saying that playing tennis was no longer fun.

Nadal still seems to possess a great passion for the game -- the only question going forward that really matters: Are his knees up to a run at Federer's record?

The answer, of course, is impossible to know.

Nadal offered his list of short-term priorities: the beach, fishing, friends, undergoing treatment for his knees, watching Spain play its World Cup semifinal -- and partying -- at home on the island of Mallorca.

Is he looking ahead to the U.S. Open?

"Right now," Rafa said, "I am very happy to win Wimbledon. I'll think about U.S. Open in one month. It was a very important and emotional moment for me, and I want to enjoy that."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Kamakshi Tandon contributed to this story.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.