Federer's Slam hopes still burning
Roger will continue believing after glimpses of past quality
When it was over he unlaced his shoes, stuffed a towel in his bag and strolled away, that cool equanimity that belongs to Roger Federer just as extraordinary as ever.
It is the person as much as the player which has drawn so many to him across the course of 17 years at Wimbledon and that held true as much as ever yesterday.
They wanted to see if the sublimity of what he has produced these past two weeks could take him back to the plateau he once occupied and for several intermittent and thrilling moments it certainly seemed like that.
Some of them belonged amid this match's first pickings. You felt, then, that the way Andy Murray had been brushed out of the semi-final with an imperious waft of the Swiss racket on Friday afternoon really was symptomatic of something quite extraordinary.
In the rapt Centre Court silence of those early minutes, Federer launched a first service game to love, then sent his opponent scrambling way beyond his baseline in hopeless search of the first return of his own serve. Two minutes passed before Novak Djokovic so much as claimed a point.
It was something quite thrilling to behold. We had come to see if agelessness could exist in this sport and discovered a man 33 years and 338 days old - seeking to become the oldest Wimbledon Champion in the Open era - deconstructing a lot of preconceived notions about what you or I would call early middle age.
When Djokovic was broken to love in the match's sixth game, he was already heaving at the effort of his service. Federer, meanwhile, was demonstrating the noiseless art of what Newsweek recently called being "an air player". He found his feet. Djokovic frequently lost his footing.
But there is a reason why the younger man, this sport's most supreme athlete by a distance, had continued his own extraordinary journey through tennis last night.
That early service break advantage permitted Federer perhaps five minutes' satisfaction at best before it was wrestled away from him. Djokovic calmly broke back, reducing to dust all that supposed significant talk about opponents having claimed the Federer service only once this fortnight.
It became a familiar sequence of giving and taking away.
Federer reclaimed some more impetus through the two break points with which he could - and should - have taken the first set 7-5. But they, too, were ripped out of his grip by the man so presciently described by many over the fortnight as a "tennis machine".
Djokovic collects points rather than win them. The process is more utilitarian, less aesthetic, less obvious, yet it is quite brutal in its efficiency. It was manifest in return after return of serve landing on or around Federer's feet, wringing capitulation out of him.
It allowed the Serb to claim the first set with a venom burst, whirling through a first set breaker so rapidly that we wondered if Murray's demolition man had vanished on the midsummer breeze, to be replaced by an imposter.
It was a measure of the form Federer has rediscovered that he did not go quietly when the first set had gone. For those who have cause to lament the outcome of this final, there will always be the tie-break: the match's highpoint, right up there at the heights of Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe's fourth-set masterpiece of 1980 and destined to be played on perpetual BBC loop for generations.
You did not give Federer the faintest prayer as he laboured through that decider, with three more set points against him.
But it was then we witnessed a brief return to the parity these men once shared: each of them seeking to hammer the living daylights out of each other, Djokovic blowing for air as he sought to make ground in the rally by which Federer brought things back from 6-3 to 6-5.
The roar reached to the sky when he took it to 6-6, sending Djokovic storming to his seat in fury to rip off his shirt.
More set points followed for Djokovic even then - there were eight in all - but somehow Federer made the higher plane and prevailed. Djokovic was left thumping his racket into a shoe, wondering what might yet unfold.
It was a painfully brief intrusion on the defending champion's road to triumph.
Federer had barely taken in his second-set accomplishment before there were more break points to fight, then a break of service, then the knowledge that the fourth set would be do-or-die.
He then barely touched the champion, whose service returns retained a metronomic consistency. It would have taken something exceptional to come close and Federer's unforced error statistics - 35 to the Serb's 17 - revealed something less than that.
Federer's pragmatic reaction to what had unfolded suggested some relief at having at least run Djokovic close for a time. "I didn't lose bad, so I can be happy," said the Swiss. "You know, I still think I had a great tournament. You can have good tournaments without winning.
"I still won six matches, lost one. The ratio still remains good," he added.
Three long years have passed without the title which had become almost his entitlement and the equanimity with which he meets moments such as this is remarkable.
"A finalist's trophy is not the same," Federer said. "Everybody knows that. Thankfully, I've won here in the past, so it doesn't feel like I'm chasing anything. No, I don't feel like I'm chasing anything but clearly I would have loved to win today."
But he is chasing something, of course, even though the sight of his wife, Mirka, taking a picture of him collecting his runners-up plate, suggested that they know these Centre Court moments might not be theirs much longer, though.
The evidence of the past fortnight is that hope can still burn, so long as a man called Djokovic does not hove into view on the last Sunday, standing so implacably and impeccably in his way.