By the time he had the famous trophy in his hands almost the only light in the stadium was coming from the electronic scoreboard and the photographers' flashbulbs. Aficionados might debate whether or not Rafael Nadal's victory over Roger Federer was the greatest Wimbledon final in history, but there could surely be no doubting that the world's most famous tennis tournament had never before ended in such darkness.
It was at 9.15pm, nearly seven hours after the match had started, that Nadal fell to the Centre Court turf in celebration of his 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7 victory. Two rain breaks had added to a day of extraordinary drama as the modern game's two great gladiators fought to the death in the longest final in Wimbledon history. At four hours and 48 minutes it beat Jimmy Connors' 1982 victory over John McEnroe by more than half an hour.
Finals of sporting events so often disappoint. This, however, was a glorious exception, a contest that not only lived up to all the pre-match hype but surpassed it.
The expectation could hardly have been greater. Roger Federer, in the eyes of many the greatest player ever to pick up a racket, was attempting to become the first man for 122 years to claim the game's most treasured prize for the sixth year in a row. In his path stood his most feared rival, who had lost to him in the previous two Wimbledon finals, the most recent a wonderful five-set epic, but had humiliated him in the French Open only four weeks earlier with the heaviest defeat of Federer's Grand Slam career.
The match quickly developed a pattern, Nadal patrolling the baseline and Federer trying to force the pace. It was the Spaniard, however, who won nearly all the big points, especially in the early stages. He took the opening set – the first Federer had dropped in the tournament – after breaking serve in the third game, and the second after winning five games in a row from 4-1 down. When Federer served at 3-3 and 0-40 it seemed the end would be swift, but a Nadal backhand into the net and four successive service winners averted the crisis. Two games later rain forced the players off court for an hour and 20 minutes and when they returned Federer looked a different man. To roars of approval, the defending champion won the third set tie-break with an ace.
There may have been a new spring in Federer's step, but in the fourth set he again had to fight his way out of trouble, winning four points in succession when serving at 4-5 and 0-30.
The subsequent tie-break matched the drama of the famous Borg-McEnroe cliffhanger of 1980. Nadal, with two of his own serves to follow, led 5-2, only to let his opponent off the hook with a double-fault and a netted backhand. The Spaniard, nevertheless, forced two match points, which Federer saved with a service winner and a wonderful backhand down the line. At 9-8 Nadal hit a backhand return long to hand Federer the set.
Just before 8pm, at 2-2 in the final set, rain fell again. Surely they would have to return the next day, but at 8.24 play resumed once more. As the light faded so the crowd's passion grew. Nadal, serving second, repeatedly went within two points of defeat, but at 7-7 two loose forehands cost Federer his serve. In the final game Federer saved a third match point with a sensational backhand return, but on the fourth he put a forehand into the net.
Nadal fell on to his back in delight, embraced Federer at the net and climbed into the stand to celebrate with his entourage before clambering over the roof of a commentary box to shake hands with Crown Prince Felipe, the heir to the Spanish throne, and his wife, Princess Letizia, in the royal box.
Federer described it as his "hardest loss". In time he might savour the memory of such a momentous day, but losing the title he treasures above all others will hurt for a good while yet.