7 July 2008

|It ended in darkness but the pair of them had given us a blazing, eternal light. No sport, no playwright, has conjured up such magical theatre as those last three games as Rafa finally found his moment and threw himself triumphantly back on to the dew-gathering Wimbledon turf.

It was 16 minutes past nine on the clock, four hours 40 minutes of shower interrupted play which had always demanded a finish like this. There had been times in the first three sets when the match had not fully delivered what we all knew these two heroes were capable of. There were even moments when King Roger’s head dipped and his racket swished in frustration at the prospect that his reign might be over without truly engaging in a fight. He was engaged now.

Leading 7-6 with Rafa serving, he took the first point. As we heard the score called “Love 15” we did the lightning arithmetic and realised that Roger was just three points away from that so coveted sixth title. Just three points, but they are hard to come by in the gathering gloom, with the crowd hushing down and Rafa Nadal going through to hold serve at the other end.

With the scores level, the drama moves forward almost too quickly. With no break between games, Roger is suddenly 15-40 down and once again facing into the unthinkable abyss he has been so close to before. Any earlier doubts of the full ferocious pride of this champion were dispelled as he crashed through a 125 mph ace. But he could not hold the white bandana figure across the net. He was broken.

At 10 past nine, with well over 4½ hours of the unimaginably intense, one-on-one combat, Rafa was serving for the match in the gloaming. It was quite impossibly dark. A pigeon had somehow evaded the efforts of Wimbledon’s hired falcon and was circling low level as Rafa bent over his serve, and the stadium was so hushed that the only sound was the bouncing of the just-visible yellow ball.

An owl was needed, but Federer must have night vision. Rafa now had two match points, and his first serve was a bullet to Roger’s backhand. In a flash of mesmerising, instinctive, reactive genius, it was slashed back past Rafa for a clear winner. It could not have happened, but it had.

Yet the end had to come – and with the force that is Nadal, come it would. All the years, all the delights and awesome wonders that have been Federer had been put before us as this afternoon had moved to night but now a new champion would not be denied the birthright his talent has decreed. To have winners or losers seemed almost impolite but the rules demand it.

For every magical Federer moment, the feathered slice, the swift-footed drive, the brutal, wide-swing forehand, there was a Nadal return or, best of all, that inimitable whipped forehand down the line winner. Now was the time, and the executioner’s blow was self-inflicted – a Federer forehand dumped into the net. Rafa lay on his back, a white figure, arms and legs extended as if he was trying to send a “X” kiss signal to outer space.

As he returned to our world, he wanted to plant kisses of his own. In an instant he was up on to the players’ box to not only hug ‘Team Nadal’ but also to first walk along to pay respects to the Federer family and then, cloaked loyally in the Spanish flag, he trod nimbly over the top of the score box roof to thank the Prince and Princess of Spain for coming to see him follow up his compatriots’ triumph in the European Championships.

The presentations needed floodlights, but what we saw we treasured. Federer had fought like a lion to hold on to his kingdom but now he was back into full courtesy mode. In his moment of defeat, he lifted both himself and his listeners by paying tribute to the man that had beaten him. Sport is about winning but at the end it is also just about sport.

Then Nadal came forward. English is very much a second language in which “thank you very much” plays a fairly large part. But last night he not only fulfilled his destiny, he and Federer also showed how sport can do something more than be “the opium of the masses”. He and his opponent had given us something we will never forget. As Rafa did his victory tour, the camera flashes sparked gold on the trophy.

Of this night, of this most dramatic, most wondrous of tennis matches, the memories will always be golden, too.

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