LONDON (Reuters) - Roger Federer arrived at Wimbledon on Sunday in his stylish cream suit and walked away wearing the mantle of sporting greatness.
By burying second seed Rafael Nadal in a nerve-jangling 7-6 4-6 7-6 2-6 6-2 thriller, the world number one took his place alongside Bjorn Borg as the only men to have won five successive titles the All England Club in the professional era.
After a three hour 45 minute duel of high drama, Federer sank a smash on match point and collapsed on the turf weeping.
Overwhelmed with emotion, he covered his face. Once he managed to drag himself to his feet, he raised his arms to the skies to acknowledge the deafening cheers.
Among the 14,000 fans lucky enough to witness the mesmerizing battle was a beaming Borg, who won from 1976 to 1980, in the front row of the royal box.
“Each one is special. To play a champion like Rafa in the final it means even more and equaling Bjorn as well,” the Swiss said.
“He (Nadal) is a fantastic player and is going to be around for so much longer so I am happy with every one I get now before he takes them all.”
“It was such a close match, I told Rafa at the net ‘you deserved it as well’ but I was the lucky one today,” added Federer, who had slipped back into his suit for the presentation ceremony.
Nadal had given his all in one of the most thrilling finals seen at Wimbledon.
“I have to congratulate Roger, five titles in a row is fantastic. I lost today but played a great two weeks,” he said.
The Swiss earned an 11th grand slam title — equal with Borg and his hero Rod Laver — and he now trails Pete Sampras’s record by just three. He also made amends for his disappointment at the French Open final four weeks ago, when his hopes of completing a career grand slam were wrecked by Nadal.
“Records are made to be broken and it couldn’t happen to a nicer player. Maybe he can win six, seven or eight times,” Borg said.
Federer’s triumph extended his string of wins on turf to 54 and with no grasscourt equal in sight, the 25-year-old has plenty of time to climb to the top of the Wimbledon winners’ list — a position currently occupied by seven-times champions Sampras and Briton William Renshaw.
Federer had downed Nadal over four sets in the showpiece match 12 months ago and the sequel proved to be an epic played out in sunshine, rescuing Wimbledon from the misery of a soggy fortnight.
A match full of power-driven forehands, audacious angles, outrageous winners, numerous Hawkeye challenges, frayed tempers and injury timeouts finally brought the tournament alive.
After Nadal had hauled himself back from losing the opening three games, Federer was flustered in the tiebreak when he served on his third set point at 6-5.
A Nadal backhand was called out but the Spaniard challenged the decision and the electronic ball tracker, Hawkeye, judged it had clipped the line.
The Swiss, who has called the system ‘nonsense’ in the past, looked irritated with the call but kept his focus to clinch the set 9-7 with a sublime backhand volley.
Over the next two hours, the players drew gasps from the stands as they unleashed their full repertoire of shots to test each other to their limits.
At one point in the second set three-times French Open champion Nadal slipped on the baseline and, legs splayed, made a sensational backhand return.
The Spaniard dived, rolled and tried every trick at his disposal to sneak in front of Federer.
Once Federer had stormed through the third set tiebreak 7-3, he shook a clenched fist towards his camp as he strode back to his chair and title number five seemed to be looming fast.
But after opting for a toilet break before the start of the fourth set, the usually unflappable Swiss inexplicably lost his focus and suffered a meltdown.
At 2-0 down, a Nadal forehand at 30-40 was called out on the baseline but Hawkeye overturned the decision. Staring at the screen in disbelief, Federer lost the game and marched up to the umpire shouting “Can you switch it off, it was definitely out.”
“How in the world was that ball in? It’s killing me today.”
Nadal then requested a timeout for treatment on a knee injury but still managed to drag the Swiss into his first five-setter in 13 grand slam finals.
The Spaniard showed no obvious signs of discomfort and continued to stalk Federer to earn break points at 1-1 and 2-2 in the fifth set.
But he could not convert them and allowed Federer to get his nose in front with a bewitching forehand winner for a 4-2 lead. From then on there was only one winner.