No man had beaten Roger Federer at Wimbledon since 2002. But in near darkness, one of the greatest tennis matches ever played concluded in the Wimbledon final Sunday with Roger Federer hitting a short forehand into the net and with a victorious Rafael Nadal flat on his back with camera flashes illuminating his drained and delighted face.
Nadal had come the closest to ending Federer’s streak at Wimbledon in last year’s final, pushing his friendly rival to five sets before ending up in tears in the locker room as Federer equaled Bjorn Borg’s modern men’s record with his fifth straight title.
Last year’s emotional tussle immediately took its place among the best Wimbledon finals, but this five-set classic — played on a rainy, gusty day — was better yet.
At 4 hours 48 minutes, it was the longest singles final in Wimbledon’s 131-year history and did not finish until 9:16 p.m. local time.
“The most important thing is to win the title,” said Nadal, who won, 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7. “After that, you think about winning against the No. 1, probably the best player in history or close, and the fact it was so dramatic. But it’s one of the most powerful feelings I’ve had in my life.”
By the end, as hard as it was to see, the top-seeded Federer and the second-seeded Nadal had produced so much brilliant tennis under pressure that it seemed the most normal thing in the world that Federer smacked yet another ace to get out of trouble or that Nadal hunted down yet another sharply angled ground stroke and ripped an off-balance passing shot for a winner.
The capacity crowd at Centre Court, which had not diminished through two rain delays, continually roared with delight or surprise and took turns chanting each combatant’s first name, which is not the way these things usually work at proper Wimbledon.
“Probably my hardest loss, by far; I mean it’s not much harder than this right now,” Federer said later, his voice muted and his eyes red.
The loss kept Federer from matching the men’s record of six consecutive Wimbledon titles set by Britain’s William Renshaw in the 19th century. Federer had won 65 straight matches on grass.
“I’m disappointed, and I’m crushed,” Federer said. “He played a super match, and I’m sure it was a great match to watch and to play, but it’s all over now. I need some time.”
Federer, 26, earned himself more time on Centre Court by saving two match points in the fourth-set tie breaker. He was later only two points from victory himself with Nadal serving at 4-5, 30-all in the fifth set. But Nadal, like his opponent, has a remarkable will as well as a remarkable topspin forehand.
And although Federer kept chipping and ripping away at Nadal’s service games, he broke him just once in the match, and that was early in the second set. In all, Federer squandered 12 of 13 break-point opportunities.
Nadal, a Spaniard whose serve was once considered his weakness, converted 4 of his 13 chances against Federer, none more important than the break that came when Federer, serving at 7-7 in the fifth, took a huge cut at a short forehand and knocked it just long.
Nadal, seldom short of positive energy, leapt with delight and hustled to his chair to prepare to serve for the championship. It was 9:10 p.m. in London when he walked to the baseline, and the light was so dim at the end of this intermittently rainy day that both players were concerned.
“I almost couldn’t see who I was playing,” Federer said, shaking his head.
Nadal agreed. “In the last game, I didn’t see nothing,” he said. “Was unbelievable. I thought we have to stop.”
Wimbledon’s organizers have pushed their sessions to the limit this year, with other matches finishing at 9:30 p.m. Not finishing on Sunday would have forced the tournament to extend to Monday, with all the logistical challenges that would have entailed.
“It would have been brutal for fans, for media, for us, for everybody to come back tomorrow, but what are you going to do?” Federer said. “It’s rough on me now, obviously, to lose the biggest tournament in the world over maybe a bit of light.”
But Nadal still had to hold serve one more time to get his hands (and teeth) on the gold-plated Challenge Cup. And although Federer did save a third match point at 40-30 with a bold backhand return that Nadal could not handle, Federer could not save the last, which came two points later.
As soon as Federer’s forehand hit the net, Nadal dropped to the grass as if he had been hurled there, his racket flying out of his left hand. Among those standing and cheering in the front row of the Royal Box were Manuel Santana and Borg.
Nadal, a 22-year-old from Majorca, joined them both on Sunday by becoming the first man to complete the grueling French Open-Wimbledon double in the same year since Borg in 1980 and also becoming the first Spanish man to win here since Santana in 1966.
After four straight titles in Paris, Nadal finally had a Grand Slam title on a surface other than clay.
Nadal wanted to share his victory with his family, and after shaking Federer’s hand, he climbed into the players’ box to hug his parents, Sebastian and Ana Maria, and his coach and uncle, Toni. Nadal then became the first Wimbledon champion to walk across the sloped roof of the commentary booths to the royal box —flashbulbs lighting his way — to shake the hand of Spanish Crown Prince Felipe and Princess Letizia.
As is his custom, Nadal did not strike a triumphant tone in victory. He has long been deeply respectful of Federer, even as he has built a 12-6 career record against him and beaten him in the last three French Open finals.
“He’s still the best,” Nadal said. “He’s still five-time champion here. Right now I have one, so for me, it’s a very, very important day.”
Federer, who had not dropped a set until the final, will still be ranked No. 1 on Monday, but this has clearly been Nadal’s season, with victories in two of the first three Grand Slam tournaments.
Federer came into 2008 hoping to match Pete Sampras’s record of 14 Grand Slam singles titles. He is still holding at 12, with his only tournament victories this year coming in minor tour events.
Federer certainly responded like a champion to Nadal’s pressure on Sunday, and he also dispelled concerns that — after winning just four games against Nadal in last month’s lopsided French Open final — he would be unable to stay with the physically imposing Nadal on grass.
But Federer said losing big on clay was a pinprick compared with the sledgehammer blow of losing by so little here. “There’s not even a comparison,” he said. “This is a disaster. Paris was nothing in comparison.”
Down by two sets to love, Federer worked his way back into contention, weathering an 81-minute rain delay late in the third set, and then controlling the ensuing tie breaker with four aces and a service winner.
In the fourth-set tie breaker, Nadal took control and led, 5-2, with two serves to come, but instead of closing out the match, he played tentatively for the first time, double-faulting and then hitting a backhand weakly in the net. “I got nervous,” Nadal said.
It happens, even to indefatigable Spaniards, but Federer showed no nerves on the two match points soon to come. He saved the first at 6-7 with another service winner. He saved the second at 7-8 with a magnificent, pressure-proof backhand passing-shot winner down the line, after Nadal jerked Federer wide with a forehand approach shot.
But Nadal hardly looked like a broken man as they headed to a fifth set. “How can you not be 100 percent concentrated with sky-high motivation?” he said.
The sky was still a problem, however. Rain drove the players off court once more early in the fifth set with the score 2-2, deuce on Federer’s serve. But while a Monday finish was looking increasingly likely, the skies cleared, the tarp came off and the protagonists resumed play 28 minutes after they had stopped. They were able to finish just in time for the changing of the guard to be completed.
Not that Nadal is prepared to see it quite like that. “I don’t feel like the No. 1,” he said. “I’m not. I don’t like to feel that I’m something when I’m not.”
But there could be no doubt as he cried on court for a very different reason from last year — that Nadal now knows how it feels to be Wimbledon champion.