He has driven him into submission on hard courts and pounded him into the dust on clay, but Rafael Nadal had no answer when he met the grand master of grass on his favourite battleground here yesterday. Roger Federer won his fourth successive Wimbledon title, beating his young pretender in a manner even more convincing than the margin of 6-0, 7-6, 6-7, 6-3 might suggest.
After losing four finals in succession this year to Nadal, who has won six of their seven meetings, even a man of Federer's supreme self-confidence might have been expected to show signs of doubt. Not a bit of it. Nadal was swept away in a whirlwind first set, winning only 12 points, and when he had the temerity to become the first player to take a set off Federer here since last year's third round, the champion's response was devastatingly swift.
In all the hullabaloo over Nadal's emergence as Federer's greatest challenger, it had been easy to overlook the fact that the world No 1 himself has been better than ever in the last 12 months. Since beating Andy Roddick in last year's Wimbledon final with a display of near-perfect grass-court tennis, the Swiss has enjoyed an extraordinary run, reaching the final of every tournament in which he has played and losing only five times.
David Nalbandian, who won the Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai over five sets last November, is the only player other than Nadal who has beaten him in that time. If Federer was disappointed to lose to Nadal in the finals at Monte Carlo, Rome and Paris this spring, those performances still represented his best-ever clay-court campaign.
While this latest contest between the world's best two players did not reach the heights of some of their previous encounters, there were extenuating circumstances. For a start, the conditions were testing, with a swirling wind blowing up dust on the baselines and the bright sun dashing in and out from behind the clouds.
Yet above all this was a reminder that Nadal has much to learn about the art of grass-court tennis. He has improved his game beyond measure over the last fortnight, but it is some challenge to take on a player of Federer's brilliance while rooted to the baseline.
The pace and depth of the world No 1's ground strokes, not to mention his subtle changes of pace, induced a regular flow of errors from Nadal's racket. Shots which the game's greatest retriever might have reached on clay flew out of his reach or forced him into weak returns which Federer punished. When Nadal did come to the net, his volleys lacked conviction, while his serve was sometimes treated with contempt as Federer ran around it to hit crunching forehands.
The difference between the two players' games could be sensed in the sound of the ball coming off their rackets. With Federer you heard a single sound, generally a quiet thud but sometimes more of a crack as he hit the ball harder. Nadal's shots, in contrast, did not seem as clean - they almost sounded like double hits - as he bludgeoned the ball over the net. It was the difference between men using a set of keys and a battering ram to open a door.
Federer was in charge from the moment he put all six first serves into court in his first service game. Nadal, meanwhile, had gone into the final having dropped his service only twice at the Championships - since his second-round victory over Robert Kendrick he had won 80 service games in succession - but Federer broke him immediately with a wonderful forehand winner down the line and took only 25 minutes to win the first set. It was the first time Nadal had lost a set to love for 15 months.
The Spaniard, probably recalling that he had lost the first set 6-1 to Federer in Paris last month before going on to win and retain his French Open title, made a fine response, breaking the champion in the first game of the second set, but played a poor game when serving for the set at 5-4. Federer won a tightly contested tie-break 7-5.
With Nadal improving his serve, there were no breaks in the third set, which the Spaniard won with an excellent tie-break. It denied Federer the chance to become only the fifth player to win the men's Wimbledon title without dropping a set, but the crowd, who have taken Nadal to their hearts over the last fortnight, roared in approval.
Nevertheless, Federer, striking the ball beautifully and sending his opponent scurrying into all corners of the court, quickly rescaled his earlier heights, breaking serve twice to take a 5-1 lead in the fourth set. A loose service game of four forehand errors briefly revived Nadal's hopes before Federer served out for the match at 5-3.
If the Swiss seemed to show surprisingly little emotion at the end, simply raising his arms aloft, it was probably more a reflection of his absolute confidence in his own ability to win than any failure to recognise the extent of his achievement. This was his 48th consecutive victory on grass and takes his number of Grand Slam titles to eight, alongside Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Fred Perry and Ken Rosewall.
The only players to have won more Grand Slams than Federer are Pete Sampras (14), Roy Emerson (12), Bjorn Borg (11), Rod Laver (11) and Bill Tilden (10). Considering that Federer is still only 24, there is plenty of time for him to rewrite almost all the record books.