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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Wimbledon 2008 in review

The 122nd Championships came to the most magnificent of conclusions in near-darkness on Centre Court as Spain's Rafael Nadal brought the five-time champion Roger Federer crashing to earth in the longest, and quite possibly the finest, men's final in the history of The All England Club.

Nadal's 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 6-7 (8-10), 9-7 victory took 4 hours and 48 minutes of actual playing time but occupied all of the afternoon and most of the evening because of two rain delays.

It was the 22-year-old Nadal, rather than Federer, who fell prone on the turf as flash bulbs went off in the gloom, in joyous celebration of capturing the title he has always said means more to him than any other. Nadal is only the second Spaniard, after Manolo Santana in 1966, to become Wimbledon's Gentlemen's Singles Champion, and it was fitting that Santana should witness this historic occasion from the Royal Box.

Fitting, too, that Bjorn Borg should be in that same privileged spectator position, since Nadal is the first male since Borg in 1980 to have achieved that most draining of feat of winning the French Open and Wimbledon back-to-back.

Borg's other cherished record, five straight Wimbledon titles between 1976-80, remains intact, with Federer also stuck on five in a row. In truth, the Swiss rarely looked like making it six in a memorable marathon which Nadal, in his familiar, pugnacious fashion, generally dominated until a gripping fifth set, when the match could have swung either way.

Perhaps history, as well as Nadal, was against Federer as he battled to recover from the loss of the first two sets. Such a feat has not been accomplished since Henri Cochet came from two down against fellow Frenchman Jean Borotra in 1927.

The final was so nearly done and dusted more than an hour earlier, Nadal holding and missing two Championship points in the fourth set tie-break. A resolution at that moment would have allowed Nadal to get away to the Champions' Dinner in London before heading off next morning to play the Mercedes Cup in Stuttgart, an event on the clay surface which Nadal rightly calls his own after four successive Roland Garros victories.

Now, in his third straight Wimbledon final, and having come so close last year, Nadal can also lay claim to fame on grass. Federer's 65-match winning streak on the surface – which included his pre-Wimbledon title in Halle – is over. You can't say Federer was not warned, though.

Though the final day was one of rain, gusting wind and a distinctly un-summer chill, the 2008 Championships were generally blessed with fine weather, while the skeletal outline of the nearly-completed roof over Centre Court was a stark reminder that next year the British climate will be irrelevant, at least on one of the All England Club's courts.

For instance, the sun shone throughout the women's final on the previous day in the third contest between the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, in the past seven years. Serena had won in 2002 and 2003 but this time Venus was the victor, and deservedly so. The defending champion clocked up her fifth Wimbledon victory of the century - five in nine years, a truly marvelous accomplishment, which she emphasised in her 7-5, 6-4 win by shattering the Wimbledon women's speed record with a serve of 129mph.

The American sisters had demonstrated familiar consistency and determination as they focused on dominating the women's singles for another year while all around them the higher seeds were tumbling.

It was a disastrous Championships for the newly-emerging tennis nation, Serbia, as Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic, the number one and two seeds, crashed out in the third and fourth rounds respectively. Ivanovic, fresh from her triumph at the French Open, was confounded and defeated by Zheng Jie, a diminutive Chinese wild card entrant who had missed most of 2007 through ankle surgery but had been a 2006 doubles champion at Wimbledon.

Zheng, who marched into the semi-finals before falling to Serena Williams's firepower, had warmed hearts by saying she intended to donate her prize money to the Chinese earthquake relief fund.

The 2006 champion, Amelie Mauresmo, down at 29th among the seeds, was also a victim of the Serena juggernaut, while the third-seed and 2004 champion Maria Sharapova got no further than the second round, knocked out by compatriot Alla Kudryavtseva. The only other former champion in the women's field, Lindsay Davenport, on more of a sentimental return than a serious tilt at the title, was forced to withdraw from her second round match because of a knee injury.

Serbia's other reigning Grand Slam champion, Novak Djokovic, fared no better in the men's event. The Australian Open title holder, expected to challenge Federer in the top half of the draw, crashed and burned against Marat Safin, the Russian who had almost made a career out of criticising tennis on grass.

However, such criticisms became increasingly muted as Safin, who has won Grand Slam titles at the US and Australian Opens, enjoyed a career resurrection. He pushed into the semi-finals before coming up against Federer. Other Federer victims who could not take a set off the Swiss were the 2002 champion, Lleyton Hewitt, and Mario Ancic, the Croatian who had been the last man to defeat Federer on grass, way back at the 2002 Championships.

But there was consolation for Serbia in the men's doubles, where Nenad Zimonjic teamed with Canada's Serbian-born Daniel Nestor to defeat Jonas Bjorkman and Kevin Ullyett 7-6 (14-12), 6-7 (3-7), 6-3, 6-3. While more than welcome for Zimonjic, the final was a disappointment for the 36-year-old Bjorkman in his last Wimbledon appearance.

The women's doubles title went the way of the single's honours, into the cupboard of the Williams family. Less than two hours after facing each other on opposite sides of Centre Court, Venus and Serena returned on the same side to defeat Samantha Stosur of Australia and Lisa Raymond of the United States 6-2, 6-2.

There was consolation for Stosur in the mixed doubles, where she teamed with Bob Bryan to defeat Bob's twin Mike and Slovenia's Katarina Srebotnik 7-5, 6-4. It was a joyous return for Stosur, whose career was threatened by an infection caused by a tick bite and who did not return to tennis until April.

There was joyous news for Britain in the junior ranks, where the 14-year-old local Laura Robson captured the girls' title with a 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 victory over Thailand's Noppawan Lertcheewakarn. It was Britain's first winner in this event since Annabel Croft in 1984. She did it in style, too, by knocking out the top seed, Melanie Oudin of the United States, in the first round.

The boys' title went to Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov, who defeated Finland's Henri Kontinen 7-5, 6-3. The Taipei pairing of Cheng-Peng Hsieh and Tsung-Hua Yang won the boys' doubles defeating the Australian third seeds, Matt Reid and Bernard Tomic, 6-4, 2-6, 12-10. Polona Hercog of Slovenia and Australia's Jessica Moore, were 6-3, 1-6, 6-2 conquerors of the Australians Isabella Holland and Sally Peers in the girls' doubles.

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