Ahead of the 2021 Final, Martin Keady, our resident tennis historian, looks back at the finest Wimbledon Men’s Singles Finals ever.
The 2021 edition will have to go some to match these classics. In ascending order, here are the five finest Wimbledon Men’s Singles Finals Ever.
- 2001: Goran Ivanišević beats Pat Rafter 6–3, 3–6, 6–3, 2–6, 9–7
Goran Ivanišević is part of Novak Djokovic’s coaching team now, but 20 years ago he was on Centre Court himself, as he finally won a Wimbledon Final at the fourth attempt, eventually defeating Australia’s Pat Rafter 9-7 in the fifth set after the two men had traded sets for the first four sets. It is only 20 years ago, but in terms of the evolution of tennis it almost seems like the distant past, as both Ivanišević and Rafter were classic serve-volleyers of the kind that dominated Wimbledon for most of its first 120 years. In fact, it was the last time that two classic serve-volleyers would meet in a Wimbledon Singles Final, either for Men or Women. But if this was to be the last of the great serve-volley finals at Wimbledon, it was a heckuva way for the once dominant style of tennis to go out.
- 1972: Stan Smith beats Ilie Năstase 4–6, 6–3, 6–3, 4–6, 7–5
The 1972 Wimbledon Men’s Final saw perhaps the greatest contrast in styles between two finalists ever, because it was not only a clash of playing styles, between the serve-volleying Smith of the USA and the baseline-hugging Ilie Năstase of Romania, but a clash of personal styles and even perhaps of eras. The tall, moustachioed but otherwise clean-cut Smith was almost the embodiment of the Amateur Era in which he had grown up, whereas “Mr Nasty” Năstase was the figurehead of the new, ultra-competitive and often foulmouthed professionalism of the post-1968 generation. But between them, they played an absolutely wonderful match, which Smith eventually won 7-5 in the fifth. Wimbledon ’72 and the tennis shoes that still bear his name more than half a century on are the legacy of the singular Stan Smith.
- 2019: Novak Djokovic beats Roger Federer 7–6 (7–5), 1–6, 7–6 (7–4), 4–6, 13–12 (7–3)
The most recent Wimbledon Men’s Final was not just a five-set classic but a three-tiebreak classic, including the first ever fifth-set tiebreak in a Wimbledon Men’s Final. Unfortunately for Roger Federer, he lost all three of them, and with them the match. Of course, as every FedHed knows (and as Federer himself will probably never forget), the great Swiss actually held two match-points in the fifth set, when Djokovic was serving at 7-8. However, the Serb showed all the rock-like resilience that is his own defining quality as a tennis player (in contrast with Federer’s grace and Nadal’s competitiveness) to hold serve and eventually take the match to a third and decisive tie-break. He duly won that third tie-break 7-3, to win not only his fifth Wimbledon title but to record his third victory in a final against Federer, formerly the King of Wimbledon, in six years.
- 1980: Björn Borg beats John McEnroe 1–6, 7–5, 6–3, 6–7 (16–18), 8–6
As with the greatest ever Wimbledon Women’s Finals, for all the undoubted greatness of the other finals on the list, the top two Wimbledon Men’s Finals stand apart from the others, in magnificent isolation, perhaps as the twin highpoints of the sport of tennis and not just of Wimbledon, its greatest tournament. Indeed, the second greatest Wimbledon Men’s Final ever was almost universally regarded as the greatest tennis match ever played for nearly three decades, until it was finally supplanted. That was the 1980 masterpiece between Björn Borg and John McEnroe, which Borg eventually won 8-6 in the fifth set to claim his fifth and final Wimbledon title. However, even if the match itself was eventually replaced as No.1 on this list, the fourth-set tiebreak surely remains the greatest tie-break ever (including even the fabulous tie-break in the No.1 Wimbledon Men’s Final). It was virtually a match in itself, as baseliner Borg and serve-volleyer McEnroe traded shots and greatness until McEnroe finally prevailed 18-16. However, having won that epic battle, McEnroe eventually lost the war.
1. 2008: Rafael Nadal beats Roger Federer 6–4, 6–4, 6–7 (5–7), 6–7 (8–10), 9–7
The Federer era, or Age of Roger, at Wimbledon may have finally ended this week at Wimbledon, when Hubert Hurkacz not only beat him in straight sets in their quarterfinal but actually bagelled him in the third set. It was the first time ever at Wimbledon that Federer had lost a set 6-0 and the surest proof imaginable that, as the old saying goes, time wounds all heels – even those that once appeared to possess wings.
In reality, however, the Federer era, at least in terms of his unrivalled dominance at Wimbledon, ended 13 years ago, at the conclusion of the 2008 Final that he lost to Rafael Nadal. In retrospect, the gathering gloom in which the final few games of the final set were played out can perhaps be thought of as the tennis gods closing their eyes because they could not bear to see one of their own being defeated. And if that is hyperbole, then the 2008 Final entirely justifies it. Nadal swept into a two-set lead, Federer won two incredibly close tie-breaks to level the match, and then the two greatest players of their generation (at least until Novak Djokovic stopped consuming gluten) traded shot after extraordinary shot until Nadal finally prevailed. The only consolation for Federer, and it obviously wasn’t much consolation for him at all, was that he had lost not only the greatest Wimbledon Final ever but arguably the greatest tennis match ever.