We thought we had seen everything when Roger Federer lost in the greatest final in Wimbledon history 12 months ago, but the Swiss returned to Centre Court last night to emerge triumphant after another extraordinary ending to the world's most famous tennis tournament.
Winning the title he needed to beat Pete Sampras's record of 14 Grand Slam victories, Federer beat Andy Roddick 5-7, 7-6, 7-6, 3-6, 16-14 after a final set of almost unbearable tension. Roddick had been unbroken in all his previous 37 service games until the American miss-hit a forehand on the final point to give Federer the record he has pursued for so long.
At four hours and 18 minutes the match was half an hour shorter than last year's final, when Rafael Nadal ended Federer's hopes of winning a sixth successive Wimbledon title, but it rewrote plenty of other records. In terms of the number of games (77) it was the longest final in Grand Slam history, beating the total of 71 at the Australian Open in 1927, and featured the longest final set, outstripping the 11-9 finale at the French Open, in 1927.
If the contest did not match the sustained brilliance of last year's final, it was a superb piece of drama to set before a dazzling array of former champions and celebrities, all drawn by the prospect of witnessing sporting history. Sampras, returning to Wimbledon for the first time since his last match here seven years ago, joined Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg and Manuel Santana in the royal box, John McEnroe and Boris Becker were in the commentary booths, and Woody Allen and Henry Kissinger were among those in the 15,000-strong crowd.
At the presentation ceremony Roddick gestured to Sampras and said: "Sorry, Pete, I tried to hold him off." The world No 6, who had lost two previous finals here to Federer in 2004 and 2005 and 18 of their 20 previous meetings, might have been celebrating his own victory had he not let slip a 6-2 lead in the first tie-break, having already won the first set.
Roddick refused to buckle, however, after losing the second and third sets, recovered to level the match and in the final set showed remarkable mental strength to hold serve nine times in a row to stay in the match.
Federer wept uncontrollably in Melbourne at the start of the year when Nadal beat him in a Grand Slam final for the third time in less than a year. However, since announcing the imminent birth of his first child and marrying, Federer has won the French Open, the last jewel missing from his Grand Slam crown, and reclaimed the trophy dearest to his heart. He is only the fourth man in the Open era to win the French and Wimbledon in the same year and will today reclaim the world No 1 ranking from Nadal.
The match was a compelling contrast of styles, from the moment the two men walked on court, Federer in his super-cool military-style jacket, long trousers and head band, Roddick in regulation shirt, shorts and baseball cap. Their outfits matched their games, the difference epitomised by their backhands. Federer's, hit one-handed, is a stroke of beauty, the racket striking the ball midway through a lovely sweeping arc. Roddick's is an ugly two-handed jab, although a much more effective stroke than his backhand of old. He regularly surprised Federer with punched backhand passes down the line or cross-court.
Although the American has never had the best volleys, he attacked the net intelligently and putting 70 per cent of first serves in court at speeds of up to 143mph. It was a serving masterclass. Federer, who could not match Roddick's speed but served with greater guile, hit more aces, 50 to the American's 27, which was 11 more than he had ever hit in a match. He hit 107 winners to Roddick's 74.
The first 10 games all went with serve, the main incident of note being the arrival of Sampras after the third game. He took his seat in the front row alongside Borg, Laver and Santana before saluting the crowd. At 5-5 Roddick saved four break points. When the American forced his first break point – and set point – in the next game he took it immediately after hitting a big backhand down the line.
The crowd roared their approval: they love Federer, but after Roddick's victory over Andy Murray in the semi-finals the American enjoyed as much support. One enterprising fan had a sign reading "Come on Andy Murray" on which she had crossed out "Murray" and replaced it with "Roddick".
The American continued to force the pace in the second set, in which there were no break points. In the tie-break he had four set points, but a combination of Federer's brilliance and his own failure to put away a relatively easy volley let the Swiss back in.
Roddick started the match having won 26 of his 30 tie-breaks this year, but Federer again came out on top at the end of the third set as the American made more errors. Roddick, nevertheless, made the early break in the fourth and served out to take the final into a decider. There were only four break points in an enthralling final set. Last year the pressure of serving second in the decider finally told on the Swiss, who lost the final set to Nadal 9-7. This time it was Roddick's turn to keep staring down the barrel.
Federer saved two break points at 8-8 and went within two points of victory in four different games, but Roddick kept holding him off until the Swiss created his first match point with a half-volley winner from the baseline.
When Roddick put a forehand out on the next point Federer leapt into the air and roared. The crowd hailed the champion, but as his opponent sat disconsolately on his seat they started chanting "Roddick! Roddick!" The American rose to acknowledge their acclaim. It was a heroic display, but Roddick had the misfortune to come up against an opponent determined to seal his place as the greatest player the game has ever seen.
Epic encounters: Other marathon ties
*In last year's final at the All England Club, Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer after an epic contest of 4 hours and 48 minutes, the longest ever final at the championships in terms of time.
*In the 1988 US Open final, Mats Wilander beat Ivan Lendl in 4 hours and 55 minutes, a record for the event at Flushing Meadows.
*In the 1982 French Open final, Wilander – again – defeated the Argentine Guillermo Vilas in 4 hours and 42 minutes.
Path to history Federer's other 14 Slams
Won first Grand Slam title two months short of 22nd birthday and in his fifth Wimbledon. Overcame Andy Roddick in the semi-finals before beating surprise finalist Mark Philippoussis of Australia
Australian Open 2004
Did not meet top 100 opponent until fourth round. Then beat Lleyton Hewitt, David Nalbandian and Juan Carlos Ferrero before brushing aside Marat Safin in straight sets in the final
Beat Roddick, then the world No 2, in four sets to lift the famous gold trophy. Hewitt, the 2002 champion, had been the only player to take a set off the masterful Federer en route to the final
US Open 2004
Overcame Andre Agassi in five sets in the quarter-finals before beating Tim Henman, who was making a last Grand Slam semi-final appearance. Dropped only six games against Hewitt in final
Second successive victory over Roddick in final, winning in straight sets. Beat Hewitt in semi-finals, with Nicolas Kiefer of Germany the only man to take a set off him during the tournament
US Open 2005.
Overcame the notoriously raucous home support of the New York crowd and challenge of Agassi to win final in four sets. Kiefer and Hewitt provided only significant tests in earlier roundsn Australian
Comparatively easy draw, but had several tough matches and needed five sets to beat Tommy Haas in fourth round. Beat Marcos Baghdatis, world No 54, in the final after losing first set
Smooth passage to final, including win over Henman, who was swept off court for loss of only six games. Beat Nadal in four sets in first of three successive Wimbledon finals between pair
US Open 2006
America's James Blake, in the quarter-finals, was the only opponent who offered the Swiss master a sustained challenge until the final, where Federer overcame Roddick in four sets
Australian Open 2007
Defied difficult draw, beating several tough opponents, including Novak Djokovic, Tommy Robredo, Roddick and Fernando Gonzalez. Did not drop a set throughout the fortnight
Beat Nadal again in final, but this time needed five sets and three and three-quarter hours before prevailing 6-2 in the final set. Ferrero was the only other player to take a set off Federer
US Open 2007
Given early problems by John Isner and Feliciano Lopez but did not drop a set in last three matches against Roddick, Nikolay Davydenko and Djokovic, who was playing in his first Grand Slam final
US Open 2008
Taken to five sets by Igor Andreev in fourth round and to four by Djokovic in the semi-finals. Beat Andy Murray in straight sets in his first Slam final after the Scot's semi-final defeat of Nadal
French Open 2009
Nadal's early exit helped Federer to claim the only Grand Slam title that had previously eluded him. Beat Robin Soderling, Nadal's conqueror, in final