When Rafael Nadal claimed first grass-court title over Novak Djokovic

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 battled in the Wimbledon semis when Novak retired in the third set. The Queen’s encounter went down to the wire, and Nadal toppled Djokovic 7-6, 7-5 in grueling two hours and 16 minutes. It was the ninth win for the Spaniard over the Serb and his first ATP title on grass. Like every year since 2005, Nadal was a player to beat on clay that spring, conquering his fourth Roland Garros crown and getting closer to Roger Federer in a battle for the no. 1 spot. The victory against Djokovic was Nadal’s 37th in the last 40 matches, and it served as a real boost ahead of Wimbledon, where he would finally beat Federer in the final. 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, they 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, and he overcame a slow start to bring the victory home in straight sets. Rafa saved a set point in the first set tie break and clinched the last three games from 4-5 down in the second. Good old days of serve & volley tennis were long gone, and this was a dynamic conflict between two of the world’s best baseliners. It delivered 26 rallies longer than eight strokes and only eight volley winners! 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. The Serb played many shots from uncomfortable positions and found himself on the ground several 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 on, and they stayed neck and neck until the last point. 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 could have gone to Novak’s side. They had seven aces, although we are getting a much better picture while examining 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 the Serb, whose backhand did not work as he wanted. Novak made 24 unforced errors thanks to those issues with his movement that he would improve greatly in the years to come. Rafa stayed on 15 unforced errors, creating a significant difference in that segment considering how tight the match was.

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

Nadal committed two more forced errors (21 to 19), and those unforced errors 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 for that shortage in the mid-range rallies (27-22), and it all came to those longest exchanges where Rafa prevailed 15-11 to create that four-point gap. 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 next one, returning well and forcing Nadal’s errors with excellent down the line strokes. Novak wasted the first break opportunity when his forehand landed long. Rafa 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 the rival’s serve and forge an even bigger gap.

The Spaniard struggled to find the rhythm in the opening 25 minutes. Still, he repelled a break point at 0-3 with a forehand winner right after the serve and brought the game home with the third service winner to get his name on the scoreboard. The fifth game was another extended one, and Nadal was dangerous on the return. He created four break chances and seized the last one when Novak missed a backhand to get back on the positive side. Rafa leveled the score at 3-3 with three unreturned serves in game six, happy with that scoreline after a slow start. 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 and with deuces. Servers bypassed 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 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 grueling 74 minutes! Novak was in front in the service winners segment by 16-13, and Rafa 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 with that outcome, Nadal landed three winners in the second set’s first game and broke Djokovic in the second after three errors from his rival, who struggled with movement on the slippery surface. Rafa got broken in game three after a forced mistake and allowed Novak to get back to the level terms with three unreturned serves in the next one. After comfortable holds on both sides, Nadal had the opportunity to move in front again after earning two break points in game eight.

Djokovic repelled the first after an 8-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. The ninth game started with the Serb’s forehand winner, and Nadal added three errors to get broken at love and leave Djokovic serving for the set. One solid hold stood between Novak and the second set, but it was not to be for him. He got broken when Rafa clinched the third break chance in game ten and locked the result at 5-5 for more drama. Nadal went 40-0 up in the 11th game with three winners before Novak climbed back to deuce. The Spaniard won the next two points to bring the game home and force the rival to serve to stay in the match. At 30-30 in the 12th game, Djokovic sent a volley long and faced the first match point. Nadal sealed the deal with a smash winner at the net to celebrate the first ATP title on grass and the 28th in his career.