WIMBLEDON, England — With darkness fast encroaching on Centre Court at 9:16 p.m. Wimbledon time Sunday and all manner of doubt hanging in the air, a 22-year-old human blast furnace from the Spanish island of Mallorca suddenly splayed on the grass behind the baseline and made his first attempts at comprehension.
Comprehension might take some time for Rafael Nadal, and for Roger Federer, and for those who attended one of the greatest matches in tennis history, a 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7 gem too chock full of twists to grasp in a mere evening.
Nadal won and Federer lost, but it didn’t cut quite that simply after four hours and 48 minutes and one rain-delayed start and two rain interruptions and two match points in the fourth set and a fifth set that lasted 75 minutes and threatened to storm right into a Monday restart.
No, the longest and latest final in Wimbledon history appeared through its last three sets to have two winners, two unconquerable wills that sent the audience chanting “Ro-ger” and “Ra-fa” and hurling into the evening with no idea which way the thing might tilt.
When Federer did not receive the trophy, it ended his run of Wimbledon titles at five, just as Bjorn Borg’s run ended in a sixth final in 1981. It ended his grass-court winning streak at 65. It ended his Wimbledon winning streak at 40.
And even while he looked the picture of devastation as he labeled this “probably my hardest loss, by far,” in some curious way, the match also ennobled him and displayed his champion’s innards. It showed him digging out from a two-set deficit after he’d lost the last five games of the second set and looked hopeless.
It showed him trailing 5-2 in the fourth-set tiebreaker. It showed him fending off one match point in that same tiebreaker with a 127-mph service winner to the corner, and another with a brilliant backhand passing shot up the line to counter a brilliant Nadal passing shot up the line just when Federer and everyone else thought Nadal might have won.
“I’m very happy, but at the same time sorry for him because he deserved to win the match, too,” Nadal said, an outright reflection of a comment Federer made last year after beating Nadal in an outstanding final by 6-2 in the fifth set.
Then, somewhere between marvel and gloaming and exasperation at 8-7 to Nadal in the fifth set, the match had Federer thwarting a third match point with a cross-court backhand return worthy of violins. Finally, when Federer plunked a cross-court forehand into the net on the fourth match point, Nadal collapsed.
“This is impossible to explain what I felt in that moment,” Nadal said.
Sustaining his intent despite the goblins of all the missed chances, he had continued his ferocious rush toward Federer’s heels. He won his fifth grand-slam title, but more importantly, his first one off his adored clay of Paris. He won Wimbledon in his third consecutive final after getting closer and closer in Federer’s rear-view during the first two.
He became the first male champion since Manolo Santana in 1966 from Spain, whose players spent decades stating their aversion to grass by deeming it only a bovine pursuit.
Then he clambered up Centre Court’s various levels to the Friends Box to his family and his uncle-coach Toni Nadal, retrieving a Spanish flag and then making an unprecedented detour over toward the Royal Box, where he greeted Prince Felipe and Princess Letizia of Spain.
In remarks to the audience, Nadal called Federer “the best player of history,” and as he stood with his trophy alongside Federer with his plate, the darkness had crashed in almost completely. “In the last game I didn’t see nothing,” Nadal would say later in his fractured English. With flashbulbs popping, illuminating the two players dressed in white and reflecting off their hardware, it looked like some film set, and the show had been riveting.
Slated for a 2 p.m. start, it had begun at 2:37 p.m. because of rain, rare during this unusually bright Wimbledon. It halted late in the third set because of rain. It halted early in the fifth set because of rain.
From the beginning of the third set to the 15th game of the fifth, the players combined for 38 consecutive holds of service and not a single break point in the entire fourth set. They crushed an avalanche of winners, 89 for Federer and 60 for Nadal.
Nadal displayed his astonishing defense. Federer repeatedly sent inside-out forehands screaming into the corner for winners. Nadal’s spin and power often foiled Federer’s trips to the net. Federer’s serve served as his life raft, with his 25 aces, four in the third-set tiebreaker alone.
Finally, at 7-7 in the fifth, with Monday on everybody’s mind, Federer served, and Nadal used a searing backhand that flew across the premises into the corner to attain two break points, his third and fourth of the set. After Federer saved those (one with an ace), Nadal claimed another. After Federer saved that with a 125-mph ace to the corner, the match finally tilted.
Federer ran around to a forehand and crushed that into the net, then picked up a short ball and lifted that just long.
His protracted reign at Wimbledon, dating back all the way to June 25, 2002, had come to the precipice but, of course, then he fought more. He sent the next return game to a deuce, then saw a nasty, dancing, 115-mph serve glance off his racket frame.
Soon the old champion of 26 had hit the amazing day’s last shot, and a Spaniard who curiously grew up dreaming of doing well at Wimbledon had fallen deliriously prone just below Santana himself in the front row of the Royal Box.
He got up, went to Federer at the net, and, “I just say, ‘Good tournament. Sorry.’ Because I know how tough (it) is (to) lose a final like this. This is tougher than last year, and last year I was very disappointed in the end. So he is great champion, no?”
Yes, and that made two.