James Lawton: Roddick's courage ensures an epic finale

Roddick can say that he challenged one of the greatest to fight as hard as he ever has

All Roger Federer wanted was tennis history wrapped up beautifully, classically and handed to him by his only rival in all the days of the game he has adorned, Pete Sampras, who had flown in from his Californian mansion for the Centre Court ritual.

Yet it wasn't and it couldn't quite be as formal as that. The complication – and it was one that whoever saw it will always remember with a little wonder and the deepest respect – was Andy Roddick. He also had a demand.

It was not on history but a few hours of one day – a day to steal from the man who has been feted like few others in all of sport.

The result: possibly the greatest, gutsiest attempted larceny the old tournament has ever seen.

It didn't work because however courageously it is attempted the odds against pick-pocketing genius are long indeed. When Roddick, the 26-year-old Texan who last Friday gave Britain's prospective Grand Slam hero Andy Murray an ultimate lesson in the need to go all the way beyond what you thought was your deepest possible commitment, finally surrendered 14-16 in the fifth set which stretched the match into its fifth hour, he had almost literally been played to a standstill.

However, if it happens that the US Open title he won six years ago – in that hiatus between the glory of Sampras, whose record mark of 14 Grand Slam titles was passed by Federer last night – and the rise of the man who in the end had just a little too much of everything, he has something to tell the grandchildren who are likely to gather around him one day.

He can tell them that he once challenged one of the greatest sportsman who ever lived to fight as he had hardly ever fought before.

This was indeed a stunning addition to the folklore of the Centre Court ... and an extraordinary evocation of so much of the drama that went into last year's final, and perhaps the best tennis match ever played, when it was Federer who was required to bend the knee to the new champion Rafael Nadal.

In the absence of the Majorcan Federer yesterday regained everything many believed he had lost in the 2008 final, perhaps for ever. It may be that Federer has indeed been diminished a little by the years, that any time before last spring he might have made easier work of extending his winning record against Roddick to 21-3. Possibly Federer does not so readily see the perfectly right shot to play in that bewildering instant which marked so many of the years which led to last night's unique landmark.

But with his 15 major titles Federer, one more than his friend and fellow phenomenon Tiger Woods, is entitled to face the future in a mood of cheerful hope and speculation. He has achieved the goal that, with the rise of Nadal, and possibly Murray, had begun to haunt him before his brilliant first win on the clay court of Paris this last spring – and last night's willingness to fight and win a tennis game of astonishing attrition.

Roddick smiled gamely and told Sampras that he had tried to preserve his share of the all-time record – and that was not the least courage he had displayed on a day when he was required to serve eleven times to stay in the match. He pulled it off 10 times but Federer simply wouldn't relax his hold on destiny. He waited and he waited, and if some of his shots lacked their usual authority, others were of a quality that made Roddick wonder if his mission was really as feasible as he had every reason to believe it was when he held four set points in the second-set tie-break. If one of those had been gathered in, Federer would have needed to produce one of the great comebacks of Wimbledon or any other corner of the globe where they play his game.

Federer survived and at one set all the watching great former champions Sampras, Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, Boris Becker and John McEnroe had every reason to believe that they were about to witness a crowning exhibition from the man who had, year by year, tournament by tournament, outstripped their own formidable achievements.

But, no, Roddick was too resolute for that. He fought back superbly to claim the fourth set. He might not be Nadal, he might not be a natural force of the game, but his service, if you happened to be facing him, came from hell and so did his resolution.

His resurrection after the first tie-break was staggering in that he appeared to be a man who had been deposited irretrievably against the ropes. When he returned to the court after a toilet break he went to the wrong end. He was disoriented and, it was impossible not to believe, broken.

For Federer it was simply a question of returning the world to its normal axis. Roddick had had a marvellous Wimbledon, one in which he had reminded his sport that once he was indeed a contender for the highest prizes, but now it was time for him to forget about causing any further delay in the ceremonials.

It was an idea curtly dismissed by the ornery Texan and his sport is surely deep in his debt. For a second successive year, Wimbledon had provided a contest which carried us to the heart and the essence of great sport.

No, it wasn't the exquisite experience provided by last year's final. There was, in truth, a certain inevitability about Federer's journey to the pantheon of tennis, but perhaps that is the kind of insight that comes when the action is over because Federer is so good, so capable of performing something so far beyond the reach of the merely talented. When Roddick was serving so relentlessly, when he wasn't being trapped in the middle of the court by Federer's ability to defy the laws of probability and geometry, it was possible to imagine that from somewhere he found a way to win.

That Federer eventually drew down an elegant curtain on such a prospect was still another statement of his champion's heart as well as his maestro's touch.

He had created his impeccable history, something beyond revision or doubt. He accomplished all he had hoped. Roddick? He took his own place in the annals of the game. It is that place where the fighters reside, the men who make the challenge ultimately so worthwhile.