During the 2008 Wimbledon final I decided I was watching sport at its ultimate. Nadal was playing Federer, and the match was a supreme test of their speed, strength, agility, endurance, intelligence, and will.

This year’s Australian Open final between the same two players reinforced that belief. The 2009 Wimbledon final modified it. Tennis, per se, isn’t the ultimate sport. But tennis the way Rafael Nadal plays it can be.

The Federer-Roddick final was long and dramatic, but at no time was it as interesting as the Federer-Nadal match the year before. This year’s last set went to 16-14, but not because neither player gave an inch in battle. No, it was simply that neither could handle the other’s serve. The problem with tennis is that a big serve compensates, or overcompensates, for a lack of those other qualities by which athletes ought to be measured. Nadal doesn’t have an overwhelming serve. He usually holds serve but he rarely aces, let alone putting together a string of aces to win a game in the time it takes to comb your hair. He’s in constant danger of being broken.

Not that he often is. Federer converted just one break point against both Nadal and just one against Roddick. But Federer had 13 opportunities against Nadal and only seven against Roddick. Roddick won two of five break points against Federer. A year earlier, Nadal won 4 of 13.

In other words, last year’s match was played closer to the brink. Last year Nadal served 6 aces and Federer 25. This year Federer, whose overall game didn’t look particularly sound, served 50 aces and Roddick 27.  Against each other, Nadal and Feder each won the point on the opponent’s serve 33 percent of the time. Federer took the point on Roddick’s serve 28 percent of the time; Roddick on Federer’s just 21 percent of the time. Because of the relative weakness of Nadal’s serve, and the relative strength of his return of service, a spectator at the 2008 Wimbledon final was riveted by the knowledge that at any time anything could happen.

If anyone out there knows where to find the average number of strokes per point in these two finals, please tell me. Nadal’s ability to keep long rallies alive with his ground strokes is the core of his game, and the reason why his big matches against Federer have been hypnotic. I realize now that when I watched him I was looking at a sport I’d never seen before. I hope he comes back.