The Top 10 Games of 2008 (Pt. 5)

Also see: Pt. 1 | Pt. 2 | Pt. 3 | Pt. 4

2) Wimbledon Men's Final, Rafael Nadal vs. Roger Federer, July 6

While number three on our list was a great unifying moment for America, number two shows just how transcendent sport is. For here in the United States, we were all mesmerized for nearly five hours by a Spaniard and a Swiss battling in a tennis match in England. For all intents and purposes, it didn't have to matter to us that much, but it was simply too good to pass up.

The final of the 2008 Men's Wimbledon tournament was the simplest, purest form of sports in existence. The two greatest men in their craft going mano-a-mano, both refusing to bend to the other man's will in a championship contest that literally took them all day to complete.

Ridiculous shots were returned and made into mind-blowing winners. Every point seemed to be a rally. Every rally seemed to last 10, or 15, or 20 strokes per. Set points and championship points were denied often as the momentum swung back and forth. An entire sport was elevated and made more relevant than it had been in decades. Nothing Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras cooked up together ever tasted quite this good.

Rafael Nadal, the up-and-coming challenger and No. 2 player in the world, was looking to avenge his loss to top-ranked Roger Federer in this same championship round the previous year. Nadal had beaten Federer on the clay courts of the French Open of course, but the Wimbledon grass was Federer's surface. For Roger, quite possibly the greatest tennis player of all-time, few expected him to fall here, even to the top challenger. Nadal was thought to be simply the man in the way of Federer's 13th career Grand Slam title on his way to eventually smashing Pete Sampras' record of 14.

Nadal came out of the gates strong though and surprised the master, taking the first set 6-4. Federer took control of the second set, leading 4-1 until Nadal landed a devastating blow to the champ by taking the next five games in succession and winning this set 6-4, as well.

As Federer fought for his life in the third set, the rains came and delayed a tight contest for 81 minutes. When the court was clear again, the men battled to a tiebreaker. Incredibly, Nadal had the chance to knock off the great Federer in straight sets for the title. Federer bore down and won the tiebreak 7-5 to keep his hopes alive.

The fourth set would end on similar terms, again they matched each other at six games apiece and took to another tiebreak. Nadal quickly jumped ahead and went to take the executioner's post. He led the tiebreak 5-2 needing only two more points to seal the upset. With the ball in his court, Nadal double-faulted. Federer won the next two points to draw even at 5. Even so, Nadal would go up 6-5 setting up championship point. Federer's answer to that came in the form of an angry 127 mph ace. Nadal responded with a brilliant return that he snuck past Federer's racket for the point down the line to set up championship point.

Undeterred, Federer rose to the occasion with a brilliant backhand winner of his own down the line. The tiebreak was now being stretched into somewhat of a marathon. Shades of the 1980 Wimbledon final between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, which also had a very long fourth set tiebreak, seemed to be noticeable.

Federer finally broke through and won the fourth set tiebreak 10-8, forcing a deciding fifth set. Nadal had had countless opportunities to put away the champ and score the upset and it seemed he may have missed his chance. Federer was too dangerous to let off the mat and get away with.

Even after the drama of the fourth set, the fifth did not prove to be anticlimactic. The contest was again delayed by rain early in the deciding fifth. A half-hour later, the gladiators returned to the now-horrid conditions to finish the match. Night and myst both figured into their ability to see the ball.

From then on, neither man could break the other. Service games were traded until 6-6 had become 7-7. The cruel reality of Wimbledon is there is no fifth-set tiebreak. Someone eventually has to win their set and their match by two games, no matter how long that takes. In this case, the competitors were rapidly losing daylight and visibility. The possibility of the game being suspended until the following day loomed large. In a related story, no one on either the Phillies or the Rays saw this coming.

With Federer serving, Nadal finally broke through and took the game, needing only to win one more service game to clinch immortality. Yet while Federer had made so many great shots all day, perhaps he simply did not have enough left in the tank when he drilled a simple forehand shot right into the net, ending this four-hour, 48-minute odyssey.

Nadal fell to the ground, utterly spent. Yet he was on top of the tennis world. Recognizing the enormity of the moment, Nadal celebrated by going into the stands among other things. No matter how many times ESPN Classic replays this match, Rafael Nadal would forever be the winner of what commentator John McEnroe claimed to be the greatest tennis match ever. This is especially meaningful because McEnroe was involved in, and the loser of, the aforementioned 1980 Wimbledon final that is often cited as the greatest match ever. If anyone had the right to judge this match, it would be McEnroe.

Rafa remains at No. 1 to this day, and Federer went into a mini-tailspin of sorts following the loss. Federer has since recovered to take the No. 2 spot, although he is still searching to get back what Nadal took from him on that unforgettable July night.

Final score: Rafael Nadal defeats Roger Federer 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 6-7 (8-10), 9-7

Before we go to our number one, let's take one last look at our list as it now stands and I will briefly go over how and why each game was ranked as it was. Overall, the incredible and dramatic twists and turns of a game was more a prerequisite to be on the list rather than a means of ranking the games. That is because looking across the sports, it's hard to say one had more twists and turns than another; in a sense they all seem to be very equally compelling. The more important factors were significance and impact; how much in the world of sports as well as the real world was changed after this game happened. In 2008, we were just so fortunate to have a plethora of sporting events that featured both great excitement and great meaning, more so than ever before.

10) NBA playoffs first round Game 1 – Spurs 117, Suns 115 2OT — It was a playoff game, but barely. Not a huge impact but still many high-profile players in a heated rivalry, grudge match, loser left demoralized to fall in five and Tim Duncan hitting a three. Most excitement in any NBA playoff game. Good way to start the list.

9) ALCS Game 5, Red Sox 8, Rays 7 — This stunning comeback from 7-0 down in the seventh inning left many to believe the Red Sox were coming back to win the next two games and take the series. Well, they didn't, and that keeps this game from being ranked higher.

8) Stanley Cup Finals Game 5, Penguins 4, Red Wings 3 3OT — If the Penguins had won the Cup, this would have also been ranked higher.

7) NBA Finals Game 4 — Greatest comeback in NBA Finals history. However, it was a six-point game.

6) NCAA football, Texas Tech 39, Texas 33 — Indirectly affected the national championship, saw a significant underdog knock off a No. 1 ranked team and claim a No. 2 ranking for themselves.

5) NCAA Men's Basketball Championship Game, Kansas 85, Memphis 78 — Directly decided the national championship, featuring a nine-point comeback in the final two minutes and a shot for the ages.

4) U.S. Open Golf Championship — Tiger Woods def. Rocco Mediate in 19-hole playoff on first sudden death hole. Greatest golfer in the world sold his knee to the devil for an epic, heroic, and dramatic major championship.

3) Olympic swimming, Men's 4x100 Freestyle Relay, USA (gold), France (silver), Australia (Bronze) — The greatest Olympic moment for the United States since perhaps the Miracle on Ice, and it featured both a legend and a hero.

2) Wimbledon Men's Final, Nadal def. Federer — The greatest tennis championship, two great players, greatest tennis match ever?

And that leaves us with...

1) Super Bowl XLII, New York Giants vs. New England Patriots, February 3

To eclipse such a pure example of sports excellence as the Federer/Nadal Wimbledon Final and make the top of our list in 2008 required nothing less than the Super Bowl of the Apocalypse.

While nobody is confusing the 2007 New York Giants for the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey team (Plaxico Burress, meet Mike Eruzione? I think not!), the 2007 Patriots clearly were football's version of the Soviets. The very definition of juggernaut, they were an undefeated, mistake-free, high-scoring, great-defensive team that took satisfaction in nothing less than crushing the opponent. Their coach was a methodical perfectionist (Viktor Tikhonov meet Bill Belichick? Now that's more like it!) who engaged in questionable and shaky practices. Their quarterback was, for all intents and purposes, this millennium's Joe Montana, throwing to a receiver as spectacular and explosive as Jerry Rice.

Football's first 16-0 regular season team was not going to go down to these 10-6 jokers with the shaky quarterback who had pulled off a couple of lucky upsets. The Patriots had also won three championships over the past six years, while the Giants had not been down the road of playoff success before. How could they possibly know how to handle the pressures of a Super Bowl against a team there for their fourth time that had won each of the previous three?

The Giants had completed a tumultuous and inconsistent season to reach the playoffs as a wildcard fifth seed. From there, they had to win a pair of heart-stopping upset victories in Dallas and Green Bay to get here. The latter was an overtime thriller played in Lambeau field in –4-degree weather and it pained me to leave that game off this list. Consider it my highest honorable mention and No. 11 on the list.

Brady and his Pats were so good that some bitter fans cried out for defenders to go Gillooly on his knee (a prophecy that eerily came true at the start of the following season) while others, despite being grown men, professed their creepy undying love for the man. No one gets that kind of royal treatment unless he's scary good.

Instead, their modern-day Joe Montana got the Leonard Marshall-style treatment from the underrated Giants defense. This ultimately proved to be one last joyous romp for Michael Strahan, who wreaked havoc on defense throughout the game, recording a sack on Brady in his final NFL game.

Giants fans were made to hold their breath as somehow this ultimate game hinged on the ability of Little Brother to drive his team 83-yards in the final two minutes, trailing by four.

At one point, the favorites saw the game literally slip through their fingers, in particular that of Asante Samuel's.

If you are reading this from our solar system, you probably know that said shaky quarterback got away from some tacklers and threw a pass to his even-shakier receiver. And that receiver went up and made a catch that dropped jaws. You have probably seen and heard about this play at least 3,000 going on 3,001 times by now and still have to agree that it is still worth one more look.

Shaky quarterback then threw the winning score to Plaxico Burress with just 35 seconds left, a pass that came all too easily against the vaunted Patriots defense. Which quarterback looked like Joe Montana now?

Burress, who had nobly been playing hurt all season, was overwhelmed by the enormity of the moment and the accomplishment, and wept openly in the post-game interview. This showed us all that Burress is obviously an outstanding human being.

And just like that, the apocalypse was officially upon us. The four horseman: War, Pestilence, Famine, and Death to the perfect season had shown up on the Giants sidelines. 18-1 became not just a t-shirt, but every New York sports fan's favorite rebuttal when confronted by Boston fans about the previous apocalyptic event that happened between New York and Boston sports teams.

It seemed all the stars and planets aligned to create the perfect circumstances, subplots, and intrigue for an amazing Super Bowl. Then the game delivered like few before it ever had, playing so perfectly right into the hands of all those circumstances. For my original recap of this epic shortly after it happened, just check here.

The reason this game gets top billing over the greatest tennis match ever, the greatest Olympic moment in many years, the greatest golf tournament, the greatest clutch shot in an NCAA title game, and the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history is because, well, it's the greatest Super Bowl. While the true sports purist may insist that the best game was in fact the Federer/Nadal match at number two, we do not live in a world full of sports purists. The most meaningful and significant game for the greatest number of sports fans in this country turned out to have the greatest underdog story in the most dramatic fashion, create possibly the greatest NFL postseason highlight of all-time, and perhaps the greatest Super Bowl ever, as well. The president of NFL Films, a man who has seen and studied all 42 contests, Steve Sabol, says so, and why shouldn't you?

Final score: Giants 17, Patriots 14

Other NFL Honorable Mentions

  • NFC Championship Game, Giants 23 @ Packers 20 OT, Just missed the cut
  • AFC divisional playoff, Chargers 28 @ Colts 24, Philip Rivers/Peyton Manning duel, Billy Volek comes in for injured Rivers and leads Chargers to improbable winning TD
  • Week 2, Chargers 38 @ Broncos 39, The Ed Hochuli game, also a spectacular shootout with a dramatic finish

I decided to make this list not just because I was disappointed that ESPN did not come up with one, but because 2008 ran so deep with great games that a moment as unforgettable as Jason Lezak's could rank only third. It ran so deep that I couldn't find room on the list for a 4 degrees below freezing NFC Championship Game decided in overtime. 2008 was a year that cried out for such a list and so here it is. I hope for those of you that read along, this helped recapture those memories and provided everything ESPN could have and more. Hopefully by the end of 2009, the folks at the Worldwide Leader will get their act together and get it right and do either a top 10 of the year or better yet, top 10 games of the decade. Otherwise, I might just have to write you guys another one of these next year.

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