Remember in the early 2000s when men’s tennis became close to unwatchable—booming serves, points that were over before you blinked, synthetic rackets blasting serves 130 miles an hour? With Rafael Nadal dethroning five-time Wimbledon champion Roger Federer on Sunday, that broad caricature of the men’s game no longer applies. In men’s tennis, defense now reigns supreme.
Federer, of course, has not won 12 Grand Slam titles with his serve alone. He, too, has used his superior service return and all-around defensive skills to dominate more traditional power players like Andy Roddick. When he faces Nadal, however, Federer’s all-court genius is stymied. Federer relied on his monstrous first serve to help abate the enormous pressure in the fifth set. (You can watch the whole remarkable set here.) He served consecutive aces from deuce after the match’s third rain delay, at 2-2, then hit his way out of trouble again at 15-40 and 5-5. Every other player would have been demoralized after squandering these break opportunities. Not Nadal. He simply adjusted his underwear, broke Federer for the fourth time in the match, and served out the championship, winning 9-7 in the fifth.
Nadal’s game hinges on defensive pressure—so long as he’s able to get the ball back in play, he always seems to have an advantage. Despite an improved first serve, which he hits consistently and at a higher percentage than Federer, it was Nadal’s stubbornness—refusing to ever concede a point—that gave him the edge in the fifth set. In a game where he didn’t end up breaking, at 5-5, 15-15, Nadal showed why he now looks impossible to beat. Federer hit a well-placed serve down the middle at 126 mph. The point should have been over, but Nadal somehow reached and returned the ball with reasonable depth. Federer then whipped a wicked approach shot into the corner, seemingly winning the point for a second time. Instead, he was met by a nasty, dipping forehand pass that he couldn’t return. Against any other player, either of Federer’s shots might’ve been good enough; against Nadal, he needed to win the point three times.
Defense and offense are always intertwined in tennis, and it’s the instantaneous conversion of a losing position into a winning one that makes the sport so thrilling. Aces are exciting enough, but it’s the return of a seemingly unreturnable shot that gets fans truly ecstatic. Compare Sunday’s match to a recent one between Nadal and Croat Ivo Karlovic, a grass-court titan who the Spaniard took down at a Wimbledon warm-up tournament last month. Karlovic stands 6-foot-10, crushes his serve, and seems all but incapable of winning a point if he doesn’t produce an ace or a service winner. Nadal won the match in a pair of tiebreakers despite failing to break Karlovic’s serve once. This was a tennis dystopia, where the points are nasty, brutish, and short.
Sunday’s match, by contrast, was the most utopian spectacle in tennis’ recent history. The inevitable changing of the guard talk shouldn’t overshadow that the 26-year-old Federer played brilliantly after a shaky two opening sets, most memorably hitting an ungodly backhand pass in the fourth-set tiebreaker that saved championship point. For another, Sunday’s match illustrated the striking similarities in the top players’ games. Nadal and Federer (and to a lesser extent, Novak Djokovic) wear their opponents down by forcing errors, weaving together finesse and power and spraying winners from places on the court that other players can’t reach. When everybody—even Nadal on occasion—can serve at 125 mph, such abilities are what distinguish those two from the more traditional power players like James Blake and the 155-mph-serving Roddick, both of whom fared poorly at the French and Wimbledon.
This year’s results aren’t a sign that power no longer matters in the men’s game; one look at Nadal’s arms would dispel any such notion. It’s more that power in tennis today is largely manifested defensively; thanks to high-tech rackets and weight training, the best players can now hit shots on the run with incredible pace, depth, and spin, immediately placing them back on the offensive. Nadal, in particular, is turning the supposed disadvantage of bad court position into an outdated theory for lesser players.
In men’s tennis, there’s no better way to get your opponent out of position than with a well-struck, well-placed serve. Nadal showed at Wimbledon that other players’ best serves aren’t good enough. He leads the men’s game in return games won in 2008, breaking his opponents’ serve 36 percent of the time, or roughly twice a set. After him come Nikolay Davydenko and Novak Djokovic, the Nos. 4 and 3 players in the world, respectively. Federer is tied for sixth in return games won, which may reflect his greater ease in holding his own serve—if you never get broken, you don’t need to break your opponent as often—but may also reflect unaccustomed troubles with his defensive game. In Sunday’s match, he had plenty of break opportunities in the first two sets but was unable to convert. In the fifth set, when he needed a break to win his sixth straight Wimbledon, Federer couldn’t put consistent pressure on Nadal’s serve.
By winning the French Open and Wimbledon consecutively, Nadal has confirmed that in today’s game, unrelenting defense can win major titles. For Nadal to cement his position at the top, though, he’ll have to prove that his grinding style won’t destroy his body. The very brilliance that makes for such remarkable tennis may also—so the current fear goes—shorten the 22-year-old’s career. Roddick, with his booming serve, might conceivably outlast Nadal and become competitive once again. Federer, too, with his reliable serve, power forehand, and remarkable ability to stay healthy, may still be able to remain at a high level until he’s 30, or at least until he breaks Pete Sampras’ record of 14 Grand Slam titles. So long as Nadal is still standing, though, it’ll be a long slog for everyone else. Big servers take note: You’ll need to win every point three times.