WIMBLEDON, England - Back and forth they went in the Wimbledon final, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, the two greatest tennis players of their generation producing one of the greatest matches of any generation on the sport’s grandest stage.
For five sets, through rain, wind and descending darkness, the two men swapped spectacular shots, until, against a slate sky, Nadal earned the right to fling his racket aside and collapse on his back, champion of the All England Club at last.
“Is impossible to explain what I felt in that moment, no?” Nadal said after accepting the golden trophy that has belonged to Federer since 2003.
The No. 2-ranked Nadal ended No. 1 Federer’s five-title run at the grass-court Grand Slam tournament by the slimmest of margins, 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7, Sunday night. Nadal is the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to win Wimbledon and the French Open in the same season.
“Probably my hardest loss, by far,” said Federer, who was trying to become the first man to claim six consecutive Wimbledon championships since the 1880s.
Nadal stopped Federer’s streaks of 40 victories in a row at Wimbledon, and a record 65 in a row on grass, thereby stamping his supremacy in their rivalry, no matter what the rankings say.
“Look, Rafa’s a deserving champion,” said Federer, who hadn’t lost a set all tournament before Sunday. “He just played fantastically.”
And that tremendous play lasted a record 4 hours, 48 minutes, longer than any of the classic Wimbledon men’s finals it will be recalled alongside, including Borg’s five-set victory over John McEnroe in 1980.
Nadal, the first Spanish man to triumph at the All England Club since Manolo Santana in 1966, managed to regroup after blowing a two-set lead, managed to recover after wasting two match points in the fourth-set tiebreaker. He earned his fifth Grand Slam title, but first away from the French Open.
Nadal did it by showing fortitude on his serve, saving 12 of 13 break points. He did it by breaking serve four times — twice as many times as Federer lost serve in his previous six matches combined. And Nadal did it by being better from the baseline, winning 24 of 38 points that lasted 10 or more strokes, according to an unofficial AP tally.
“He was rock-solid, the way we know him,” said Federer, who hit 25 aces. “He’s definitely improved his game.”
When action resumed at 8:23 p.m., it already was tough to see, and the players traded service holds until 7-7. That’s where Nadal finally broke through, as Federer’s forehand really began to break down. A forehand into the net gave Nadal his fourth break point, and a forehand long conceded the game — the first break of serve by either man since the second set.
“I played terrible there,” said Nadal, who double-faulted to 5-3.
Down 6-5, Federer erased a match point with a 127 mph service winner. Down 8-7 — again, one point from losing — Federer hit a backhand passing winner.
A forehand winner put Federer ahead 9-8, and when Nadal missed a backhand return, the match was even. Federer jumped and screamed, and the crowd of about 15,000 joined him.
No man since 1927 had come back to win a Wimbledon final after losing the first two sets, and none had overcome a match point to seize victory since 1948. If anyone could, it figured to be Federer, especially on this particular lawn.
“But Rafa keeps you thinking, and that’s what the best players do to each other in the end,” Federer said. “That’s what we both do to each other.”
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
Nadal defeated Federer at the French Open en route to each of his championships there, in the 2005 semifinals and the past three finals, including a 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 rout last month that was Federer’s most lopsided loss in 180 career Grand Slam matches.
Watching Rafa Nadal churn his way through the claycourt season over the past few weeks, it seems nothing much has changed since his French Open triumph a year ago despite a lengthy injury layoff.
Watch fantastic fifth set
July 6: Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal put on a show in the fifth set of their Wimbledon final that no tennis fan will ever forget.
Scenes from Down Under
Check out the best images from the 2013 Australian Open.
The best of Wimbledon
The best images from the Grand Slam tournament at the All-England Club.
French Open 2012: Top 10 Shots
June 10, 2012: John McEnroe, Ted Robinson, and Mary Carillo look back at the Top Ten best moments from the 2012 French Open.
June 23-July 6