James Lawton: Spanish strength beats heart of a champion in greatest Wimbledon final

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Long before he was forced to submit to the extraordinary power and relentless ambition of Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer showed us that you cannot always measure a man by his titles – and still less the majesty of his talent.

Sometimes you have to see how he handles the awful dawning of the hardest truth he will have to face in a life that has carried him to vast celebrity and acclaim, and in this case, stunning achievement.

The possibility to absorb is that maybe out there is someone who is better and stronger and whose will runs beyond any of your skill or your aura.

Federer, indeed, had to accept there was such a man – and that his name was Nadal.

So what could he do? He believed he had only one option and told himself that if you are Federer, whom the world of tennis has been describing as a champion of champions for some years, you fight the young Spanish lion with everything right down to your last instinct

You make shots that defy imagination and you save your title, at least for a while, with a backhand down the line that will be remembered by all who saw it because outside of a boxing ring it is unlikely they will ever see quite the level of courage and speed of decision it required.

If you do this long enough against an opponent who, at 22, is maybe unprecedented in his combination of power and superb ability to apply pressure, you put yourself in position to make at least one of two extraordinary achievements.

You contribute to one of the most astounding tennis matches ever seen at Wimbledon – or any other great staging post of the game

And then maybe you land the ultimate prize, the win that you seem to have fashioned from nowhere, one that would have carried you past the Swedish iceberg Bjorn Borg with your sixth straight Wimbledon title. The trouble for Federer was that Nadal was too good and he had given him too much of a start.

But then what Federer did here in the dying light will never be lightly dismissed when people talk of great sports events – and maybe the greatest Wimbledon final of all time.

He brought himself back to life after revealing something that was hard not to see as a crisis of belief in almost every aspect of his talent as Nadal easily accelerated to a two-set lead.

The terrible, and surely scarring statistic was that Federer had won just one of 12 break points as he lurched towards what seemed certain be an ugly ending to one of the most beautiful bodies of work in any corner of sport.

For any top-flight tennis player these figures speaking of failed nerve would have been something to hide in some dark corner of the psyche. But for a man seeking to move to within one Grand Slam of the all-time mark of 14 held by Pete Sampras – they were more than a reproach.

They were the embarrassing evidence that Nadal had done more than push him almost to the edge in last year's final and then pummel him to a humiliating defeat on his favoured terrain of red clay at the French Open last month.

What had become clear as the match reached towards its fifth hour, with no sign of the relentless Mallorcan relaxing his grip on the great champion's throat, was that Federer was suddenly fighting for more than still another title. He was battling for his status as one of the greatest champions of any sport, of any age, the kind of niche that is already occupied by his great friend Tiger Woods.

The trouble was that the man across the net had a rather glorious agenda of his own. Nadal, owner of four French Open titles, is of course also a master sportsman, one of immense power and fine achievement and, most crucially on the Centre Court last night, with an absolute disregard for the reputation and the skill of the man who had twice before beaten him here on his favoured grass for the title.

Though Federer's service at times flowed with all its usual conviction – at one point he yielded just four points in six games – and there were shots which seemed to have been conceived on some other, distant level of imagination, the trouble was that he was most vulnerable at those times when great champions are supposed to be nothing less than untouchable.

One moment Federer was indeed the man who over the last six years has redefined the artistic possibilities of his game, who has shown an easy mastery of every challenge except the one embodied in Paris at the French Open by the fierce young man who was now pushing him so hard at every turn.

But then at the next he was shaking his head and mumbling to himself, a man nothing less than disoriented in his failure to control the flow of the game.

Repeatedly the worst moments for Federer came when Nadal applied the heaviest of the pressure he brought, right until the last heartbeats of this unswervingly taut game.

In the course of a routine service game Federer could look as majestic as ever. He could unfurl shots which bewildered Nadal and thrilled the galleries time and again. But it was at those moments when the game could have been swept in one direction or the other, as in 11 of those break point chances that were allowed to dribble away, when you had to worry that Federer would not only lose a title but also some of the best of his meaning in all of sport.

It was a reckless, even stupid thought, Federer eventually managed to convey. He did it with a performance of resistance, and rediscovered nerve, that went beyond the winning and the losing of any championship.

It showed us, precisely, how the heart of a great champion truly works.