Nadal outlasts Federer in Wimbledon thriller

Jul 6, 2008 - 10:58 PM WIMBLEDON, England (Ticker) -- Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer took their rivalry to unprecedented heights in a Wimbledon final that proved to be one for the ages.

Nadal overcame rain, darkness and a valiant effort from Federer to win his first career Wimbledon title, 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 6-7 (8-10), 9-7, in an epic battle Sunday between the world's top two players.

It was a career-changing victory for Nadal, who had lost to Federer in each of the previous two Wimbledon finals and was bidding for his first major championship on a surface other than clay.

"I lost the last two finals, close finals," said Nadal, who dropped a five-set thriller to Federer in last year's final. "But he's still the No. 1. He's still the best. He's still a five-time champion here.

"Right now I have one. So for me it's a very, very important day."

The reigning four-time French Open champion, Nadal became the first player to win at Roland Garros and at Wimbledon in the same year since Bjorn Borg in 1980. He also became the first Spaniard to raise the trophy at the All England Club since Manolo Santana in 1966.

"It is impossible to explain what I feel in this moment," Nadal said. "I'm just very happy to win this title. For me, it is a dream to play in this tournament. But to win - I never imagined something like this."

The second-seeded Nadal, previously regarded as a claycourt specialist, likely secured his status as the best player in men's tennis by ending Federer's five-year reign of dominance at this grasscourt Grand Slam.

In dethroning Federer, Nadal ended the Swiss superstar's 40-match winning streak at Wimbledon and snapped his 65-match winning streak on grass.

"I tried everything," Federer said. "Rafa is a deserving champion. He just played fantastic."

After converting a pivotal break in the fifth set's 15th game, Nadal finally secured the historic win with darkness descending when Federer rifled a forehand into the net.

In an exhibition of exhilaration and exhaustion, Nadal fell onto his back near the baseline before offering a tear-filled salute to an All England Club crowd that included Borg, who watched the riveting match from the Royal Box.

The match also drew rave reviews from numerous tennis experts.

Television analyst John McEnroe, a three-time Wimbledon champion who ended Borg's five-year run in 1981, called it "the greatest match I've ever seen."

Bud Collins, a longtime tennis journalist and current TV commentator, dubbed Sunday's final as "the heavyweight championship in the world of tennis - a singular match in Wimbledon's history."

Federer was bidding to surpass Borg, who won this event every year from 1976-80, and become the first player to capture six straight Wimbledons in the Open Era.

"Federer is a great champion," said Nadal, who improved to 12-6 in the all-time series between the players. "His attitude is always positive when he loses or when he wins.

"I always have a lot of respect for him. I admire him a lot. We have a very good relationship."

The only player to win six straight Wimbledon titles was William Renshaw from 1881-86. However, after claiming his first championship, Renshaw was required to win only one match in the challenge round to retain the title in the following five years.

Federer also was aiming to exact a measure of revenge against Nadal, who completely dismantled the world No. 1 en route to a straight-sets rout last month in the French Open final.

Nadal appeared headed toward another dominant victory against Federer, who was completely overwhelmed by the Spaniard's barrage of precise groundstrokes during the first two sets Sunday.

But Federer, a 12-time major winner, displayed his championship mettle by winning the next two sets and forcing a marathon match that featured three rain delays and lasted 4 hours, 48 minutes - the longest final in Wimbledon history.

"(It is) probably my hardest loss, by far," Federer said. "I thought I played well. I missed too many chances obviously in the first couple of sets."

Both players held serve in the decisive fifth set until the 15th game, when Federer lofted a groundstroke beyond the baseline to give Nadal an 8-7 lead.

That set the stage for the victorious Nadal, who claimed his fifth career major title on Federer's 52nd unforced error of the match.

It was a fitting end to a frustrating day for the top-seeded Federer, who converted only 1-of-13 break chances in the match and failed to recover from a slow start.

"It didn't make it easier, but I expected the worst," said Federer, who is two major wins away from tying Pete Sampras' record of 14. "It's the worst opponent on the best court. It's been a joy to play here again. It's a pity I couldn't win it, but I'll be back next year."

After rain delayed the start of the match for nearly 30 minutes, a black cloud remained over Federer's head throughout the first two sets.

Despite committing seven unforced errors and squandering three break chances in the first set, Federer opened a 3-0 lead in the second set only to drop a break in the seventh game.

Nadal saved a break point in the eighth game to forge a 4-4 tie, went up a break in the following game and claimed the second set when Federer dropped a backhand into the net.

The match turned in the third set when Federer erased a 0-40 deficit in the seventh game to take a 4-3 lead. Both players held serve until rain halted the match again, this time for nearly 90 minutes.

When play resumed, Federer played just well enough to force a third-set tiebreak, rifling an ace past Nadal after wasting a pair of set points.

That set up a scintillating fourth set in which both players held serve until the tiebreak.

With the score tied at 7-7, Nadal set up his second championship point of the tiebreak when he raced into the left corner before rifling a winner down the line.

But after firing a pair of winners to reclaim a 9-8 lead, Federer watched the southpaw's backhand return sail beyond the baseline.

Both players held serve through the first four games of the fifth set before rain delayed the match again, opening the possibility of a Monday finish.

Following a 25-minute delay, Federer had a chance to take command in the fifth set's eighth game. But he squandered yet another break opportunity, and Nadal drew even at 4-4 with a forehand winner.

Federer overcame 0-30 deficits in the 11th and 13th games only to finally crack in the 15th. He erased a 15-40 deficit and forced a pair of deuces before ultimately being broken.

"Rafa played well," Federer said. "I'm happy we lived up to the expectations. I'm happy the way I fought. That's all I could really do."

Federer nearly became the first player to win the Wimbledon final after saving a match point since Bob Falkenburg, who saved two match points against John Bromwich in 1948.