On June 15, 2008, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic met in the final of the prestigious Queen's event, the second most important tournament on grass after Wimbledon. A year earlier, they had battled in the Wimbledon semis, with Novak retiring in the third set.
This match at Queen's went down to the wire, with Nadal toppling Djokovic 7-6, 7-5 in grueling two hours and 16 minutes, scoring the ninth win over the Serb in 12 encounters and lifting his first ATP title on grass. Like every year since 2005, Nadal was the player to beat on clay that spring, with consistent results on hard as well, getting closer and closer to Roger Federer in the battle for the no.
1 spot. The victory against Novak was Nadal's 37th in the last 40 matches, serving as a real boost for Wimbledon, where he would finally manage to beat Federer in the final three weeks later. As a result suggests, it was a tight battle right from the start, with Nadal prevailing in both sets to grab the crown after taking only four points more than Djokovic.
Besides the legendary trophy that had been won by some of the biggest names in the world of tennis, they both fought for the first ATP title on the fastest surface, with Novak competing in the first title match on grass.
Nadal was eager to leave his two Wimbledon defeats behind him (Roger beat him in the final in 2006 and 2007), overcoming a slow start to bring the victory home in straight sets, saving a set point in the first set tie break and winning the last three games from 4-5 down in the second.
Good old days of serve&volley were long gone and this was a dynamic conflict between two of the best baseliners in the world, with 26 rallies longer than eight strokes and only eight volley winners overall! Nonetheless, they went for the shots and hit almost 50 winners from the court, mostly from the forehand side.
It was interesting to observe Novak's movement as he struggled to find the right balance on the slippery surface, playing many shots from uncomfortable positions and finding himself on the ground a couple of times, luckily without injuries.
The Serb was more determined to impose his strokes in the opening few games and Nadal realized he would have to take more risky shots to get back on track and compete on the same level with the dangerous rival.
Once he did that, an entertaining clash was right on and they stayed neck and neck until the very last point, offering the crowd in London something to cheer about.
The fact that he had beaten Djokovic eight times in the previous 11 matches helped Nadal to have the upper hand in the deciding moments of both sets, although they both could have gone to Novak's side. Officially, they had just seven aces, although we are getting a much better picture when we examine the number of service winners, where Djokovic stood on 24 and Nadal on 20.
The Spaniard had 25 winners from the court, one more than Novak whose backhand didn't work like he wanted, making 24 unforced errors thanks to those issues with his movement that he would improve a lot in the years to come.
Rafa stayed on 15 unforced errors, creating a significant difference in that segment considering how close the match was. Nadal committed two forced errors more (21 to 19) and we can say that those unforced errors cost Novak the triumph or at least a set.
More than half of the points ended in the shortest area up to four strokes and Nadal was 51-46 in front, despite hitting four service winners less than Novak. The Serb managed to compensate that shortage in the mid-range rallies (27-22), with all coming to those longest exchanges where Rafa prevailed 15-11 to create that four points gap when the encounter saw the last stroke.
Djokovic kicked off the action with a shaky service game, bringing it home after ten points and one break chance. He saved it with a service winner and opened a 40-0 lead in the second game, returning well and forcing errors from Nadal with excellent down the line strokes.
Novak wasted the first break opportunity when his forehand landed long and Nadal saved the other two to reach deuce before hitting two forced errors to suffer a break. The Serb confirmed the break with three winners in game three and had more chances to steal Nadal's serve and forge an even bigger gap.
The Spaniard struggled to find the rhythm in the opening 25 minutes, although he repelled a break point with a forehand winner right after the serve, bringing the game home with the third service winner to get his name on the scoreboard.
The fifth game was another extended one and it was Nadal who was dangerous on the return, creating four break chances and seizing the last one when Novak missed a backhand to get back on the positive side of the scoreboard.
Rafa leveled the score at 3-3 with three unreturned serves, happy with that scoreline as Djokovic had the upper hand in the opening games. They both found a nice rhythm in the following games: they hit a lot of winners and reached 5-5 without any problems.
The final two games were tight, with deuces, and servers bypassed the break chances to set up a tie break. Novak was 3-1, 4-3, 5-4 and 6-5 in front, earning that set point after taking a 13-stroke rally. Rafa denied it with a forehand winner after 18 shots, scoring another mini-break with a deep return in the 13th point to move 7-6 ahead.
He seized the set point with a service winner for an 8-6 after a struggle that lasted 74 minutes! Novak was in front in the service winners segment by 16-13 and Nadal had one winner from the field more, hitting 12 against Novak's 11.
Djokovic had 16 unforced errors while Nadal stayed on eight, with five forced mistakes more on the Spaniard's tally (14-9). Pumped after the outcome of the opening set, Nadal landed three winners in the first game of the second set and broke Novak in the second game after three errors from his rival, who had problems with his movement on the slippery surface.
Still, Rafa got broken after a forced mistake in game three, allowing Djokovic to get back to the level terms with three unreturned serves in the next game. After comfortable holds on both sides, Nadal had the opportunity to move in front once again, earning two break points in game eight.
Djokovic repelled the first after an 8-stroke rally and the second with a service winner, closing the game with a backhand winner to avoid the setback and send the pressure to the other side of the net. The ninth game started with a forehand winner from the Serb and Nadal added three errors to get broken at love, leaving Djokovic to serve for the set and deliver the deciding set.
One solid hold stood between Novak and the second set but it wasn't to be for him, losing serve on Nadal's third break point for a 5-5 and more drama. Nadal went 40-0 up in the 11th game with three winners before Novak climbed back to deuce, only to lose the next two points that forced him to serve to stay in the match in the next game.
At 30 all, Djokovic sent a volley long and Nadal sealed the deal on his first match point, hitting a smash winner at the net to celebrate the first ATP title on grass and the 28th overall after just turning 22.