LONDON (Reuters) - Rafael Nadal punched a mighty hole through Roger Federer’s aura of invincibility on Sunday to become the first Spaniard in over four decades to win the Wimbledon men’s singles crown.
In one of the most nerve-jangling finals seen at the All England Club, Nadal survived two rain breaks and an astonishing Federer fightback to end the Swiss’s five-year reign as Wimbledon champion with a thrilling 6-4 6-4 6-7 6-7 9-7 victory.
While Nadal emulated the 1966 feat of fellow Spaniard Manuel Santana, Federer’s dreams of eclipsing Bjorn Borg and setting a modern-era record of six successive Wimbledon titles died after four hours and 48 minutes of heart-stopping action.
Nadal’s astounding journey to win his first crown at the grasscourt grand slam began under cloudy skies at 9:36 a.m. EDT, and finished in near darkness at 4:16 p.m. EDT.
The 22-year-old collapsed on to his back the moment Federer buried a forehand into the net on Nadal’s fourth match point.
Dragging himself up from the turf, a tearful Nadal clambered through the stands to embrace his family and friends, who draped the red and yellow Spanish flag over his shoulders.
In a Wimbledon first, the Majorcan then strode across the commentary boxes on Centre Court to shake hands with Prince Felipe and Princess Letizia of Spain in the Royal Box and went on to exchange high fives with numerous fans in the stands.
“It’s impossible to explain what I felt in that moment... winning my favorite tournament, it’s a dream,” Nadal told the crowd after becoming the first man since Borg in 1980 to complete the Roland Garros-Wimbledon double in the same year.
Four weeks after humiliating Federer in the French Open final, Nadal demonstrated that the balance of power in men’s tennis had shifted in his favor when he handed the Swiss his first grasscourt defeat in six years.
An utterly dejected Federer, though still world number one, could barely fathom his first major final defeat outside his three losses at Roland Garros.
“This is a disaster, Paris was nothing in comparison,” said the 12-times grand slam champion, who had hoped to close in on Pete Sampras’s overall record of 14 major titles.
With the Swiss now a month shy of turning 27, Sunday’s defeat would almost certainly have ended his dreams of emulating William Renshaw’s 1880s record of six Wimbledon titles in a row.
Twenty-seven years after a left-handed John McEnroe wrecked Borg’s hopes of landing six in a row, Federer’s dreams were also scuppered by another left hander.
Nadal, four-times a French Open champion, had stepped out for his third All England Club final knowing the numbers were clearly stacked against him.
The Spaniard had captured one title on grass, Federer’s total stood at 10. Nadal had a 30-7 win-loss record on grass, the Swiss’s was a far more impressive 81-11. No one had been able to beat Federer on his favorite turf for 65 matches.
However, Nadal also knew that he was capable of tearing apart the Swiss’s game plan, as he had done in the Paris final just four Sundays ago when Federer had bagged only four games.
Such has been the Spaniard’s form, entering the contest on the back of a 23-match winning streak, he made even the stylish Swiss look like an ordinary club player at times when he bagged the first set and clawed back from 4-1 down to take the second.
It left Federer facing an uphill battle since the last time a man had come from two sets down to win a Wimbledon final was way back in 1927.
As Federer struggled with the gusting conditions, Nadal leapt in the air administering his crackling top spin, hammering the ball relentlessly into the corners and stretching his opponent to the limit.
Nadal seemed to edge towards victory at 3-3 in the third set when Federer fell 0-40 down but he served his way out trouble.
After the first 81-minute rain delay Federer pounced in the third set tiebreak, clinching it 7-5 with a belting ace.
Federer’s survival instincts kicked in when he served at 4-5 and 5-6 in the fourth set to take the contest into a tiebreak that had the crowd on the edge of their seats.
Nadal streaked to a 5-2 lead and with two serves at his disposal, it seemed Federer’s reign was over.
But the Spaniard showed a rare sign of nerves when he produced a double fault and followed it up with another error.
Nadal was able to earn a championship point at 7-6 only to see Federer erase it with a 204 kph service winner. Nadal carved out a second match point at 8-7 with a running forehand pass. Pinned in the corner, Federer conjured an incredible backhand passing shot down the line to deny Nadal again.
Federer had the set in the bag two points later, taking the tiebreak 10-8, and with the tide turning in his favor, it looked as if he could become the first man since Bob Falkenburg in 1948 to win a Wimbledon final from match point down.
Proceedings were again disrupted by rain at 2-2 in the fifth set and upon resumption the duo kept up the intensity.
At 5-4 up in the fifth, the Swiss came within two points of victory but a relentless Nadal averted the danger and five games later he had the break that mattered, zooming in towards a famous victory after the longest men’s singles final at Wimbledon.
Editing by Clare Lovell