LONDON // Roger Federer, now the undisputed best tennis player ever, found himself embroiled in an epic five-setter for the third successive year on Wimbledon's final day, emerging from it exhausted but in glorious triumph when there was much, much more than another men's singles title at stake. The Swiss, who eventually overcame gallant American Andy Roddick 5-7, 7-6 (8-6), 7-6 (7-5), 3-6, 16-14 was playing for sporting immortality. His gruelling victory 4hr 16min was a record 15th in grand slams and takes him ahead of all other contenders to be regarded as the greatest player of all time. Never has Federer had to work as hard for a major title. The Swiss who narrowly prevailed over Rafael Nadal over the maximum distance two years ago, before losing a better rematch with his arch Spanish rival last year, needed four and a half hours to put the indefatigable Roddick to the sword.
The decisive moment came in the 30th game of the final set when Federer managed to break the Roddick serve for the first time in the match - he had previously squandered several break points. The sublime Swiss knows, however, that he could have been swept aside in straight sets but for a remarkable lapse by his opponent who was in terrific form in dominating the opening two sets. Roddick will re-live for the rest of his life the moment when a juicy high backhand volley came his way in the first of two tie-breaks. Had the American made it - and he has been as productive as any player in this tournament when hovering over the net - the chances are that Federer's history-making occasion would have been put on hold at least until September when he goes for a sixth successive US Open title.
A safe dispatch into the wide open court would have given Roddick a two-set lead over what at the time was an anxious Federer. Screwing it wide reprieved the Swiss and within seconds he had transformed his fortunes by drawing level at one set all. After that, Federer returned to the imperious mood which had made him such an overwhelming favourite to claim the 15th major title he craved to take him past the record established in 2002 by his good friend Pete Sampras. Sampras, seven times the winner of this famous Championship, has not made use of his life membership of the All England Club since his shock second round defeat by Switzerland's George Bastl seven years ago but he made a special comeback journey on the eve of the match to be able to acclaim what he felt sure was going to be the most significant day in his sport.
Sampras, like Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg, two other genuine greats sitting alongside him in the Royal Box, could not believe it when Roddick let Federer off the hook. Sampras knows, as do all true legends, that lifelines have to snatched when they are offered so unexpectedly. Those on court sensed there could be only one outcome after that but Roddick, to his enormous credit, refused to cave in. email@example.com