The Big Three or even Big Four didn’t even exist.
If you were a fan of the suave artist Federer, you weren’t a fan of the muscular, ultra-intense Nadal and vice versa.
As the respectful youngster chasing Federer, Nadal lavished praised on the Swiss seemingly every time he spoke to reporters.
“I think for me he’s the best of the history,” the Spaniard said on the eve of the 2008 final.
It wasn’t the first time he’d uttered those words.
Eleven years later, ahead of their Wimbledon semifinal, there certainly seems to be a healthy respect between their supporters — the healthiest ever — and Federer is now the one complimenting Nadal whenever he gets the opportunity.
Just last month after their French Open semifinal, Federer provided some unique insight into why Nadal is so dominant on clay.
“There is nobody who even plays remotely close to him,” he said. “It’s just amazing how he plays from deep and then is able to bounce back and forth from the baseline. It’s just quite interesting.”
And while winning will be hugely important to both this Friday, still playing and at such a high level should supercede the outcome.
‘We’re still here’
A few years ago, their careers were in jeopardy.
Federer sat out the last six months of 2016 after undergoing knee surgery and few thought Nadal — given his physical style of play — would still be around.
With Nadal also missing the end of 2016 with a wrist injury and suffering constant knee problems throughout his career, it made their absorbing contest in the 2017 Australian Open final all the more remarkable.
Indeed, instead of the pair dwelling on the importance of winning following their quarterfinal victories, they made it clear they were simply pleased to get another chance to battle at Wimbledon 11 years after the match many consider to be tennis’ greatest ever.
It even inspired the book, “Strokes of Genius,” by best selling author Jon Wertheim, which turned into a documentary that was aired last year to mark the 10-year anniversary of the epic.
“Excited about this match, excited about this opportunity to be again in the semifinals, against him,” said the 33-year-old Nadal after downing Sam Querrey in the quarterfinals. “Always I say the same. Of course the opportunities to play against each other every time are less, but we’re still here.
“(On Friday) we are going to have another chance.”
Federer, who beat Kei Nishikori, acknowledged Nadal’s longevity.
“It’s impressive to see how sort of healthy he’s stayed,” the nearly 38-year-old Federer said. “We’re still here. So it’s nice to play each other again.”
A momentous occasion
The 2008 final was certainly better for Nadal. He ended Federer’s five-year reign at Wimbledon and banished memories of the 2007 final when he lost in five sets and wept in the locker room. The 2008 win was his first Wimbledon title.
Among the key moments, after grabbing a two-set lead, Nadal missed out on two championship points in an enthralling fourth-set tiebreak — Federer saved one with an outstanding backhand down the line — but eventually won the decider at around 9.15pm as evening turned to night.
Rain delays pushed back the finishing time, as did the match duration of four hours, 48 minutes.
Federer’s 65-match winning streak on grass dissipated, despite a sizzling differential of 89 winners and 52 unforced errors. Nadal countered with 60 winners and 27 unforced errors.
Nadal famously climbed into his player box to celebrate, applauded by Federer’s camp and congratulated by Spanish royalty that was in attendance.
“We played a lot of good matches,” said Nadal. “Here in this tournament we played especially two great matches, 2007 and 2008. (They) have been two emotional matches.
“Personally, 2008 was a little bit more emotional for me. But I appreciate the fact that I was part of 2007, too. Then we played a lot of matches all around. Only in New York we didn’t play. That’s the only bad news,” he added, referring to the unfortunate, in that respect, US Open.
Nadal didn’t know whether his win at the French Open earlier this year — which snapped a five-match losing run against Federer and bettered his overall record against the Swiss to 24-15 — would have any bearing on the upcoming duel.
“I tell you in two days,” he said. “Probably is better to have that victory than have defeat, of course. But on the other hand, is completely different situation, no? Play on grass or play on clay is probably the biggest change in the world of tennis.”
Federer felt the French Open result wasn’t especially relevant, although it did pave the way for Nadal to close to within two of Federer’s record of 20 grand slam titles.
“I feel like conditions were slightly different,” he said.
“It was so windy. It was just insane. I haven’t heard it was going to be the same [on Friday], so I hope not, even though that would be funny again.
“It’s about how has he played so far, how have I played so far.”
Nadal has had the more difficult draw, paired against the big-serving trio of Nick Kyrgios in the second round, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the third and Querrey in the quarterfinals.
But they’ve both impressed Hall of Famer, Kim Clijsters.
“Rafa playing Nick, and Tsonga and Sam now, it’s a tough draw,” Clijsters told CNN. “Just great to see what he was capable of after the clay court season, just adjust to the grass courts so quickly.
“And to see Roger doing it, it’s incredible. I think everybody can’t wait to watch it in a couple of days.”
Who is Clijsters tipping? The Belgian paused, before giving Nadal the slight advantage. Whoever prevails will probably have the unenviable task of facing defending champion Novak Djokovic, who faces Roberto Bautista Agut on Friday, in the final.
“The intensity Rafa is putting into the match is so high,” she said. “He serves extremely well on break points down. Just very much ready to go. I think Roger is going to have to do everything well and move well and play aggressively and serve well and just hang in there.
“So I think, Rafa might be able to get it this time.”
This could be the last time they ever meet at Wimbledon, no less a grand slam, so we should all sit back and enjoy it.