Nadal tops Federer in historic final

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 7, 2008

The Associated Press

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.

Email newsletter signup

‘‘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.’’

Borg and Santana watched from the front row of the Royal Box at Centre Court, which next year will have a retractable roof. Perhaps Mother Nature wanted one last chance to leave her mark, delaying Sunday’s start by 35 minutes with rain. Showers again caused a delay of 1 hour, 21 minutes late in the third set, then another of 30 minutes at 2-2, deuce, in the fifth set.

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.

Nadal still had to serve out the match, though, and he still had to avoid the sort of nerves Federer noticed when his opponent led 5-2 in the fourth-set tiebreaker.

‘‘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.’’

It was their sixth Grand Slam final, already more than between any other pair of men in the 40-year Open era, and there could be several to follow. Federer is only 26, after all, and Nadal is 22. Federer has led the rankings for a record 231 consecutive weeks, and Nadal has been second for a record 154.

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.

But the Swiss star kept reminding everyone this week that he has had the upper hand on surfaces other than clay.

Not this time.

Nadal lost to Federer in the 2006 Wimbledon final in four sets, and the 2007 final in five. Although the latter was certainly suspenseful, it featured neither the drama nor the all-around excellence of Sunday’s encounter, which ended at 9:15 p.m., when Federer pushed a forehand into the net on Nadal’s fourth match point.

Federer made clear afterward he was not pleased that play continued despite the low visibility at the end.

‘‘It’s rough on me now, obviously, you know, to lose the biggest tournament in the world over maybe a bit of light,’’ he said.

Said Nadal: ‘‘In the last game, I didn’t see nothing.’’

Both players figured that had Federer managed to break back to 8-8, play would have been suspended until Monday because of darkness.

‘‘It would have been brutal,’’ Federer said.

It didn’t happen.

Nadal came through, and when he arose from his celebratory flop on the ground, he had grass stains on the back of his white shirt. He shook hands with Federer, then climbed into the players’ guest box to hug his uncle/coach Toni and others. With tears in Nadal’s eyes, he grabbed a red-and-yellow Spanish flag and walked across the top of the scoreboard and the roof of the TV announcers’’ booth to reach the Royal Box for handshakes with Spain’s Prince Felipe and Princess Letizia.

As this scene unfolded, Federer sat alone in his changeover chair, protected from the night’s chill by his custom-made cream cardigan with the gold ‘‘RF’’ on the chest.

So many serves, so many strokes, so much grit — all for naught.

‘‘I am very happy for me,’’ Nadal said, ‘‘but sorry for him, because he deserved this title, too.’’