As COVID-19 virus brings world sport to a standstill, here at ESPN India it has inadvertently given us a moment of pause. To think about what sport means to us and how in fact, it all began. Every sports journalist is eventually, at heart, a fan - of an athlete, a team, an idea.
We decided to return to that fan in each of us in a fresh series from members of our staff talking about their recollection of the moment when sport first reeled us in. Here we will remember what it was about a game, an exchange, a piece of action, a shot that first lit the torch which, despite the years, the deadlines, the scandals, the controversies, the shocks, still continues to burn.
The match: Roger Federer v Rafael Nadal, Wimbledon men's singles final, July 6, 2008.
Looking back, it seems pretty cool to me that the first tennis match I saw properly from start to finish was one that many consider the greatest tennis match of all time.
My introduction to the world of tennis happened through Rafael Nadal, whom I first heard of in 2005, when he had his breakthrough season by winning 11 titles, including the French Open on debut. My watching of the sport increased gradually. I saw parts of his matches at Wimbledon 2007, where he lost to Roger Federer in a five-set final, and at the 2008 Australian Open. I was unable to watch that year's French Open final, in which Nadal dominated Federer, losing just four games.
That French Open beatdown helped me believe Nadal would finally win Wimbledon on his third try in a final against the five-time defending champion. It certainly looked that way in the first two sets as Nadal fought off break points to win the first set and came back from 4-1 down to win the second.
After a rain delay at 5-4 on serve in the third set, the narrative of the match began to shift. Federer won the third-set tiebreak relatively comfortably. In the fourth-set tiebreak, on his second championship point at 8-7, Nadal came to the net after a heavy crosscourt forehand to Federer's backhand side. Given the weight of the moment and how good the shot was, it might've been easy to think the point - and the title - was in the bag. Except, it wasn't. On the run and pushed into a corner, literally and figuratively, Federer threaded the needle with a down-the-line backhand pass that found the corner of the court.
In Rafa, Nadal's memoir released in 2011, he recounts how losing the 2007 final had left him so despondent he spent a considerable amount of time crying in the shower after the match. He also said he was determined to avoid a repeat of that in 2008. Watching Federer's miraculous, get-out-of-jail backhand, it was hard not to feel an ominous sense of deflation, as a sign that perhaps Nadal's Wimbledon dream just wasn't meant to be. The book offered insight, but watching then, I couldn't imagine how Nadal himself must have felt to watch that shot land in, and, two points later, lose the set.
To add to my frayed nerves was the fact that Nadal was serving second in a fifth set that did not offer the possibility of a tiebreaker. There was another rain delay, followed by tense moments for both players, but they managed to get to 7-7 at 9PM local time. A 2018 BBC article commemorating 10 years of the match noted that the chair umpire and the tournament referee were planning to stop the match at 8-8 due to the fading light. Of course, that did not happen. Federer fought off three break points but could not save a fourth. Nadal saw another match point come and go before he finally got his moment, falling on his back in celebration.
Counting the delays, the match spanned nearly seven hours and finished well past midnight in India. I went through a range of emotions - joy, frustration, nervousness, relief, to name a few - as I fist pumped during points and waited aimlessly during the rain delays, too pumped up and tense to focus on anything else. It's a feeling that's become all too familiar following Nadal's matches over the years. That tension has probably shaved a considerable time off my lifespan, yet one I wouldn't exchange for anything.
To me, that match was the pinnacle of the sport. It had everything - two players with diametrically opposite playing styles, a significant amount at stake in the context of the men's game and their rivalry, the plot twists of Federer's nearly successful comeback and a race to the finish between the match and the daylight. I'll remember it as the day I got well and truly hooked to tennis.