LONDON // They are already describing the epic battle in which the young pretender Rafael Nadal brought down the curtain on the five-year reign of Roger Federer as the greatest Wimbledon final of all time. Those of us old enough to remember the way Bjorn Borg shrugged off the dejection of losing what was beyond doubt the most thrilling tie-break in history by the remarkable score of 18-16 to bounce back against the then heir apparent John McEnroe and clinch his fifth successive title in 1980 would question that spontaneous judgement after Sunday's enthralling conclusion to this year's Championships.
Younger tennis enthusiasts would point to that magical third Monday six years ago when the Croatian Goran Ivanisevic pushed his fragile temperament to its limit to overcome Australia's Patrick Rafter in another magnificent five-setter. There are many others - Stan Smith edging out Ilie Nastase in 1972, Borg against Jimmy Connors (1977) and Andre Agassi beating Ivanisevic (1992) to name but three - because Wimbledon has a happy knack of producing captivating men's finals. But 2008 will certainly go down in the annals alongside those memorable moments.
At 12 minutes short of five hours it was the longest final in the 131-year history of the world's biggest tennis tournament and in terms of drama it compares against any. Federer, desperate to move alongside William Renshaw, who won six titles in a row in an amateur era where the champion was exempt until the "Challenge Round", found himself with his back against the wall in the face of some tremendous hitting from Nadal - and how brilliantly the Swiss responded.
Helped undoubtedly by a rain break when he trailed by two sets and looked like losing in three, he somehow stayed in contention for nearly three more hours as he prevailed in two nerve-jangling tie-breaks, saving two match points in the second of them, before finally succumbing 9-7 in a gripping deciding set. The clinching point for Nadal, courtesy of a tired forehand error by Federer, came in the nick of time because the referee Andrew Jarrett, who had endured a traumatic day watching the rain clouds come and go, was waiting courtside at 9.16pm ready to postpone the conclusion until yesterday lunchtime. What an anti-climax that would have been.
Fortunately, at least from a neutral viewpoint, Nadal held his nerve and his serve to take what may be the first of many standing ovations on the biggest stage in tennis. Federer was approaching his 22nd birthday when he embarked on his record winning run of 65 grass court matches. Nadal has just celebrated his 22nd but has adapted so well over the past three years to a surface that is alien to most of his compatriots that he will surely fancy his chances of matching Federer's accomplishment.
He has already won four French Open titles - he remains unbeaten on the clay of Roland Garros and has never been taken to five sets there - and winning Wimbledon after two heart-breaking years as runner-up to Federer makes him the first man since Borg to capture both European grand slams in the same summer. Nadal also has eyes on the world No 1 ranking, which has been in Federer's possession for 231 weeks. It was put to him that he is currently the world's best player after winning six of his last seven tournaments but he would not accept that unofficial status, such is his respect for Federer, the finest of this and several other generations.
Many believed that Federer's star was on the wane in 2008 as he has won only two events. His tennis over the past fortnight, when he cruised through to the final without dropping a set and dropping his serve only twice, dispelled all doubts, at least for the time being, and he will go to New York next month confident of making a successful defence of the US Open and moving to within one of Pete Sampras's record of 14 grand slam titles.
Only the brilliance of Nadal stopped him from adding his 13th on Sunday. "There can't be a draw in matches like this," Federer lamented, aware of how little there was between the two gladiators on the day - and night. "Somebody has to lose and it does not get much harder than this." Last word to Nadal in the verbatim fashion that has endeared the Spaniard to English-speaking audiences around the world. "Impossible to describe, no? I don't know. Just very happy. Is unbelievable for me have a title here in Wimbledon. Is probably - well, is a dream. I always, when I was a kid, I dream for play here, but for win is amazing, no?"