Federer enters realm of legend after fifth successive triumph
Bjorn Borg's wish was granted. The Swede who so dominated Wimbledon three decades ago had expressed the hope that Roger Federer would equal his modern-day record of five successive titles on the lawns of the All England Club and the world No 1 duly delivered yesterday.
With Borg watching from the front row of the Royal Box on only his second visit since his last appearance on Centre Court in 1981, Federer beat Rafael Nadal 7-6, 4-6, 7-6, 2-6, 6-2 after three and three-quarter hours of glorious tennis.
It was a final that will be remembered as one of the best in the history of these championships. There have been longer finals, more tightly contested cliffhangers and contests of greater drama, but this was a match of the highest quality, between the two outstanding players of their generation.
The win extended Federer's record unbeaten runs to 54 matches on grass and to 34 on these courts, but this was the first time during those sequences he had been stretched to five sets. The last time he was taken all the way here was when he beat Pete Sampras in the fourth round six years ago.
We already knew of Federer's elegance and supreme mastery of grass-court tennis, but this was an occasion to marvel at Nadal's blossoming brilliance on a surface which had been alien to him until last summer. His run to last year's final, in which he lost to Federer in four sets, had not completely removed the doubts over whether he would ever be able to match his clay-court achievements elsewhere, but over the last fortnight he has shown that even on grass he is moving ever closer to the world's greatest player.
Nadal's performance yesterday was the final confirmation that it will surely be only a matter of time before the 21-year-old's name appears on the winner's trophy here. "He's going to be around for so much longer and for now I'm just happy for every title that I can hang on to," said 25-year-old Federer afterwards. "I told Rafa at the net that he had deserved to win as well. I am the lucky one today."
Federer went through his full repertoire: exquisitely disguised serves (24 aces to Nadal's one), free-flowing forehands and one-handed backhands of pure poetry, controlled volleys and lightning-quick feet and reactions. Nadal's qualities are still built on his clay-court powers of retrieval and brute strength, but he showed some wonderful touches at the net and played with the intelligence of a player who now understands the intricacies of the grass-court game.
It was a perfect finale to what had been the most trying of tournaments for players, officials and spectators alike. The sun shone, the wind stopped and the rain clouds that had so blighted the championships stayed respectfully on the horizon.
Federer had walked nonchalantly on to Centre Court in his white blazer and long trousers with the air of a man whose only concern was whether to ask for a Pimm's or a gin and tonic. However, a high-quality first set was a taste of the challenge to come and a strict contrast to last year's opening act, when Federer raced away with the first six games.
Although Federer won an uncharacteristically error-strewn first tie-break 9-7, the set had been desperately tight. Serving at 2-3 and 15-40 in the second set, he dug himself out of trouble with three successive aces but could not do the same four games later. Luck, however, was on Nadal's side. His first point came courtesy of a net cord and his second followed a shot which was clearly out, but which Federer failed to challenge; Nadal, subsequently wrong-footed, fell on his backside but somehow kept both hands on his racket to hit a backhand cross-court winner. At 15-30 Federer put a forehand out and was then beaten by a backhand pass down the line as Nadal took the set.
The Spaniard was so fired up that he was first man out to start the third set which must be a first of some sort but after 12 games without a break Federer was again the master in the tie-break, which he won 7-3.
If the tide had seemed to turn decisively in the world No 1's favour, his level unexpectedly dropped at the start of the fourth set as Nadal stormed into a 4-0 lead. Federer had been unhappy with some Hawk-Eye decisions and in the third game he snapped.
A Nadal forehand looked well long, but to the disbelief of almost everyone the Spaniard's challenge was successful. Federer even asked the umpire for Hawk-Eye to be turned off. "How in the world was that ball in?" he said. "Shit. Look at the score now. This system is killing me."
In the final set Federer twice had to come back from 15-40 down on his own serve before making the decisive break and his first since the second game of the first set to lead 4-2. If ever there is a debate over whether he is the greatest player to have wielded a racket on a grass court they should replay the video of this game. His last three winning points were stupendous: a running forehand pass down the line; a forehand winner into the corner, struck from the baseline, that left Nadal waving his racket at thin air; and an extraordinary point in which the lines were hit three times before Federer followed a lovely, low, skidding backhand with an inside-out, down-the-line forehand winner.
The latter was a point that had the crowd gasping in near disbelief and it seemed to knock the breath out of Nadal. Federer served to love to lead 5-2. Nadal saved the first match point in the next game but could do little about the second. Two huge forehands set up the kill, which Federer completed with a smash before falling on his back in celebration, tears flowing.
"It was a huge occasion for me, huge pressure for me," he said afterwards. "Bjorn Borg was sitting there, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Boris Becker. It's a big moment for me. And to lift the trophy at the end is a very special memory. I'll have it for all my life."
Nadal was happy with his fortnight's work. "I am young," he said. " I am improving every season and I try to continue improving every day. Today was tough for me, but it was good to play a final like this against the best player in the world, playing at a similar level to him."
In Federer's 13 Grand Slam finals he has lost only twice, both times to Nadal in Paris. This was his 11th Grand Slam title, equalling Borg and Rod Laver and leaving the Swiss one behind Roy Emerson and three behind Pete Sampras. The memory of this day, however, will not be of a set of statistics but of the supreme tennis both men played in one of Wimbledon's finest finals.