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HISTORY HELD its breath. This was supposed to be the year that the debate ended and Roger Federer took his place as the greatest tennis player ever. The Mighty Fed needed simply to sustain his remarkable trajectory and he'd eclipse Pete Sampras's record of 14 Grand Slam singles titles. He was on pace to finish his fifth consecutive year with the No. 1 ranking and become the first player since 1888 to win Wimbledon for the sixth straight time. � And so in the last few moments of daylight on Sunday, there was a Centre Court coronation. Only it wasn't for the Swiss stylist; it was for a swashbuckling Spaniard. In a spellbinding men's final that will stand as the benchmark against which all future tennis matches will be measured, Rafael Nadal dethroned Federer 6--4, 6--4, 6--7, 6--7, 9--7. Let's be unequivocal: This was the greatest match ever played.
It also doubled as a four-hour, 48minute infomercial for everything that is right about tennis—a festive display of grace, strength, speed, shotmaking and sportsmanship that crackled with electricity. If this Wimbledon final doesn't improve the sport's relevance quotient, nothing will. While Nadal collapsed onto the court after winning his fourth match point, it was the House of Federer that was brought to its knees after a glorious five-year run. "There is a new king tonight," said a breathless BBC announcer. "We may have to rethink tennis history."
In becoming the first player since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to pull off the spring-summer double—winning on the clay of the French Open and the lawns of Wimbledon—Nadal defied conventional tennis wisdom. It's long been thought that no player relying on high-bouncing topspin and cutting sidespin can thrive at Wimbledon. And it's hard to recall a player ever applying more action to his shots than Nadal does; a recent study commissioned by the International Tennis Federation found that while the ball rotates 2,500 times per minute on the average pro's shot, it rotates twice as much on Nadal's.
Yet in winning Wimbledon the 22-year-old Nadal confirmed what some U.S. television viewers already suspected: Simply calling something a "no spin zone" (in this case, a grass court) doesn't necessarily make it so. It turns out that Nadal's unique combination of spin and brutal power is ideal for Wimbledon's surface, especially when it plays as slowly as it did this year. His shots kicked so sharply upon landing that they should have required turn signals. "All the time," complained Nadal's dumbfounded first-round opponent, Andreas Beck. "I was thinking, What the hell's he doing?"
In the quarterfinals Nadal thumped Andy Murray, the Great British Hope, in straight sets. (Next day's headline in London's Daily Star: ANDY'S KICKED IN THE NADS.) A half hour after the match Murray was still dazed by Nadal's cyclonic strokes. "He just swings his arm so hard at the ball," says Murray. "With Federer it looks like effortless power. [Nadal] puts a lot of swing on it, and when it hits the court it bounces hard in the other direction!"
TONI NADAL, Rafael's uncle and coach, claims that even as Rafa was winning his fourth straight French Open last month, crushing Federer in straight sets in the final, he was preparing for Wimbledon. He practiced volleying and serving wide and planting himself on the baseline, typical backcourt positioning for grass. "Everyone thinks because he's Spanish, it's clay, clay, clay," says Toni. "But for Rafa, Wimbledon ... has always meant the most."
Nadal sure masked the intensity of his ambitions, though. His rental house in Wimbledon Village, an easy walk from the courts, was Fiesta Central during the tournament, particularly early on when Spain's soccer team was winning Euro 2008. Nadal kicked a soccer ball around on the practice courts, slapped five with passersby as he walked around town and spent part of his downtime writing a blog for The Times of London. Sample entry: "I went out to Wimbledon to do some grocery (?). Is that the word for shopping food? I guess so. I cooked ... pasta with mushrooms, gambas, some onion at the beginning and these crab sticks. Not bad, believe me. Anyway I am going to bed now and finish the Godfather."
If this insouciance was a sharp departure from Federer's buttoned-down approach, well, add it to the list of contrasts between the two. Federer-Nadal is the most gripping rivalry in sports, and it's largely because of what each player represents. No. 1 versus No. 2. Righty versus lefty. Smooth, silent grace versus rugged, oomphing tenacity. White-collar tennis versus working-class tennis. (Fittingly, Federer endorses Mercedes; Nadal has a contract with Kia.) Plus, the two players show not merely respect but also fondness for each other. Federer said that even as their final showdown loomed, he sought out Nadal in the locker room to chat. Asked last week to name his favorite sportsman, Nadal listed Spain's soccer team, Tiger Woods and ... Federer.
The critical difference between the two: While Nadal is clearly galvanized by the concept of a rivalry, Federer can appear annoyed by the presence of such a bold and pugnacious challenger. In past matches between them Federer played tentatively, unnerved by Nadal's aggression. Federer admits that, in the past, he had a "Nadal complex."
With that as a backdrop, what made Sunday's epic all the more memorable was the abundant evidence of guts on both sides of the net. Confounding Federer with his spins and angles, Nadal seized the first two sets. Call it territorial instincts, but Federer would not go gently. He dialed in his serve and, after a 90-minute rain delay in the third set, won a riveting tiebreaker. A little more than an hour later Nadal held two match points in the fourth-set tiebreaker. Federer summoned some of his best shotmaking of the day—champions do this—and, putting to rest any doubts about his mettle, pushed the match to a decisive fifth set.