Nadal reigns after enthralling battle

Nirmal Shekar

Federer wilts in an exhausting slugfest with the unrelenting Spaniard

The match lasted four hours and 48 minutes

Manuel Santana was the last Spaniard to win the men’s title

London: One of the most celebrated winning streaks in modern sport ended in enveloping darkness on the world’s most famous tennis court, on Sunday, as Rafael Nadal evicted Roger Federer from a piece of real estate — the Centre Court at the All England Lawn Tennis Club — that the Swiss maestro might have come to believe was his own private property.

Fifteen minutes past 9 p.m., as a Federer forehand return failed to cross the net, Nadal collapsed on the turf in tears before clambering over the shoulders of spectators to the players’ box to celebrate with his family.

The second seed’s 6-4, 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-7(8), 9-7 victory over the five-time champion in the 122nd championships saw him become the first Spaniard since Manuel Santana in 1966 to win the Wimbledon men’s singles title.

Longest final

Few Grand Slam finals in the long history of the sport might have scaled the heights that Sunday’s contest — the longest in Wimbledon history, lasting four hours and 48 minutes — did.

It was a wondrously entertaining battle that swung one way and the other and produced exhilarating and extravagant tennis despite two rain interruptions.

In a match so full of expression, play soared to regal heights as the sun dipped and the pair of gladiators out in the middle relentlessly pushed forward towards the climax.

It was sport at its finest, producing moments of near-impossible athletic perfection, moments when the audience and the performers were united in the thrall of something very, very special.

Finally, it was the great man who wilted in the exhausting slugfest featuring supersonic groundstrokes as the Spanish son of destiny denied Federer a niche higher than Bjorn Borg’s in the game’s pantheon.

Twenty seven summers ago, John McEnroe, beaten by Borg in five unforgettable sets in the 1980 final, stopped the great Swede in four sets to win the first of his three titles.

But the feisty American’s task was nowhere as formidable in that final as Nadal’s was on Sunday.

On a plot of turf that he has guarded for five years with unmatched skills and single-mindedness, Federer looked quite the immovable object as he wiped out two championship points in the fourth set tiebreak — the second with a magical backhand pass from wide of the court — and then pushed the Spaniard to the very brink in the eighth game of the final set.

But Nadal, who had surprisingly betrayed mental frailty when serving at 5-2 in the fourth set tiebreak, knew that he’d never be able to lift a tennis racquet again if he lost this match.

In the event, the Spaniard broke to 8-7, converting his fourth breakpoint in that game, and then closed out the match on his fourth matchpoint, which came more than an hour and 20 minutes after he had let go of his first in the fourth set tiebreak.

“I cannot describe how it felt [after the last point],” said Nadal, the first man since Borg in 1980 to win the French Open, cross the English Channel, and conquer Wimbledon four weeks later.

“It is very tough to play against him [Federer], especially here. I lost the last two finals, close finals. So this is very important today,” said Nadal.

Federer showed tremendous grace in his worst moment at Wimbledon. He said he “tried everything” but nothing worked against Rafa who he described as a “deserving champion.”

End of an era?

Surely, the great man will be back next year and he will continue to be a serious contender in these parts for some time to come. But, in a way, an era may have ended.

What a difference a single season, a single tournament can make in sport. At the start of the year, Federer’s ascent of the tallest of peaks in the game — Pete Sampras’s record 14 Grand Slam titles —seemed inevitable, something that might happen in 2008 itself.

Now, just over six months on, Mount Sampras may be barely visible in the distant horizon to Federer, winner of 12 Grand Slam titles.

While it would be foolish to believe that Federer may have already won his last major, the point is, unpredictability is the currency in which sport trades.

Even transcendence is transient in sport — it lasts about as long as sublime skills can last, avoiding erosion in the heat of a hundred battles.

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