ThrowbackTimes Queen’s: Rafael Nadal edges Novak Djokovic for first title on grass

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. They had battled in the Wimbledon semis a year earlier when Novak retired in the third set. This match at Queen’s went down to the wire, and Nadal toppling Djokovic 7-6, 7-5 in grueling two hours and 16 minutes to score the ninth win over the Serb in 12 encounters and lift 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 that got him 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 the 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 won by some of the biggest names in the tennis world, they fought for the first ATP title on the fastest surface. Nadal was eager to leave 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 after saving a set point in the first set tie break and winning the last three games from 4-5 down in the second. The good old days of serve & volley were long gone, and this was a dynamic conflict between two of the world’s best baseliners, 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, mainly 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 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 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 as he wanted, making 24 unforced errors thanks to those issues with his movement that he would improve a lot in the years to come.

Rafael Nadal prevailed over Novak Djokovic in the 2008 Queen’s final.

Rafa stayed on 15 unforced errors, creating a significant difference in that segment considering how close the match was. Nadal committed two more forced errors (21 to 19), and we can say that those unforced mistakes cost Novak the triumph or at least a set. Over 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 most extended 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 Nadal’s errors 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 lead with three winners in game three and had more chances to steal Nadal’s serve and forge an even more significant gap. The Spaniard struggled to find the rhythm in the opening 25 minutes, although he repelled a break chance with a forehand winner right after the serve to bring the game home with the third service winner and 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 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, hitting many winners and reaching 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 and scored 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 8-6 after a struggle that lasted 74 minutes! Pumped after the opening set outcome, Nadal landed three winners in the second set’s first game and broke Novak in the second game after his rival’s three errors. Still, Rafa got broken after a forced mistake in game three and allowed Djokovic to return to the level terms with three unreturned serves a few minutes later. 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 eight-stroke rally and the second with a service winner before 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 send the clash into a decider. One solid hold stood between Novak and the second set, but it wasn’t to be for him, as Rafa broke him on the third chance for more drama. Nadal went 40-0 up in the 11th game with three winners before Djokovic climbed back to deuce, only to lose the following 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 after hitting a smash winner at the net, celebrating the first ATP title on grass and the 28th overall after just turning 22. 

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