Nadal wins a classic

WIMBLEDON, England &

Rafael Nadal wasn't the first Wimbledon champion to climb through the stands and bury a tearful face in his parents' embrace.

But he was the first to scamper from there to the Royal Box and shake the hand of his country's Crown Prince. Nadal broke with tradition again by marching outside the All England club's entrance with the Wimbledon trophy in his arms to sign as many autographs as he could, triggering shrieks worthy of the Beatles before stepping back inside to fulfill the media obligations that awaited.

Only glimmers of light remained by the time Nadal completed the longest final in Wimbledon history Sunday, defeating five-time champion Roger Federer, 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (7-5), 6-7 (10-8), 9-7. And there wasn't a person Nadal didn't want to share his life's greatest moment with as darkness fell.

Federer fought off three match points before succumbing, sending a final forehand into the net to end the 4-hour 48-minute battle that was twice halted for rain. Nadal collapsed on Centre Court in relief, exhaustion and disbelief over dethroning Federer to win the game's most coveted title.

"It's impossible to describe," said Nadal, 22, who grew up on the clay courts of Mallorca. "It's a dream. When I was a kid I dreamed of playing here. But to win here? For any player &

but for the Spanish especially &

it is a dream."

Nadal had beaten Federer in 11 of their 17 previous matches. But he had never beaten him on grass, falling just short in last year's five-set Wimbledon final.

No player had beaten Federer on grass since 2002. And most predicted that his mastery would continue on Sunday, as the Swiss star sought to top Bjorn Borg's mark of five consecutive Wimbledon titles.

But it was Nadal who added the asterisk next to Borg's name instead, becoming the first man since Borg (in 1980) to win the French Open and Wimbledon the same year.

It was a Wimbledon final made memorable by more than streaks and statistics.

Federer and Nadal are the best players in the world, miles above their challengers in shot-making and grit. And their rivalry, now in its fifth year, has often produced magic.

Sunday's match was their most riveting. It included every shot in the game's lexicon as the Swiss and Spaniard varied tactics and tempo, trying to coax mistakes out of each other. It proved that a clay-court master such as Nadal can adapt his game to grass. And it underscored the best qualities in athletes: resilience, courage, creativity and fair play.

If ever a Grand Slam final called for splitting the trophy, this was it.

Nadal acknowledged as much after accepting the silver gilt cup from the Duke of Kent. With the Centre Court crowd of 15,000 standing and cheering, Nadal spoke about the challenge of competing in the same era as Federer, whom he hailed as "the best player" in history.

"He's still number one," Nadal said, as the Swiss looked on. "He's still the best. He's still (a) five-time champion here. Right now, I have only one."

Nadal was on pace to win his first Wimbledon trophy in straight sets early in the early going.

He broke Federer in the third game. And in 48 minutes, he accomplished what no player had done all tournament: win a set against Federer.

Nadal won the next set with similar tactics, hammering away at Federer's backhand at every opportunity. It wasn't that Federer played poorly. He was just shy of perfection, addled by the gusting wind and the wicked spin on Nadal's ball.

Federer changed tactics in the third set, coming to net more readily to end the long rallies Nadal loves so. But with neither able to break serve, a tiebreaker was needed. Federer fired four aces to force a fourth set.

A thrilling display of shot-making followed. In his four years as the world's No. — player, Federer has grown accustomed to wielding his racket like a magician's wand. His cross-court forehand is a wonder to behold, particularly when the ball skims the sideline just so and takes a sharp turn out of the court. Even Federer must marvel at his artistry.

But Nadal denied him that luxury so many times Sunday because he kept retrieving balls that would have been winners against lesser men and firing back winners in kind. Still, another tiebreaker was needed.

Nadal bolted to a 5-2 lead but played his worst two points of the match to give Federer a reprieve. After fending off a match point at 6-7, Federer soon found himself again in trouble when Nadal blasted a beautiful passing shot down the line.

Federer answered with a backhand passing shot even more beautiful than Nadal's and went on to win the tiebreak and pull even at two sets each.

Surely, Federer thought, Nadal would be disappointed after that. The momentum had finally swung his way, Federer thought to himself.

But Nadal's optimism proved as relentless as his athleticism. While Federer assumed he was brooding during the changeover that followed, Nadal was giving himself a pep talk, telling himself, as he sat on his chair, how well he was playing. Yes, he had made a few mistakes, he told himself. But Federer had hit some great shots. Why get down on himself for that? Why not play on, just as he had before, and see what happened?

The fifth set was played out against alternating chants of "Ra-fa!" and "Ro-ger!" The difference in their ability could have fit on the head of a pin. And it seemed impossible that either could manage the two-game advantage required to win the match, with fifth-set tiebreakers not allowed at Wimbledon.

Nadal got the critical break to take an 8-7 lead. And with the light fading, he blasted one last shot that Federer couldn't handle.

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