Nadal is triumphant after unforgettable Wimbledon epic

By the time it was over, at 9.15pm, it had become almost impossible to see the ball, yet all eyes remained riveted. There was, after all, an extraordinary afterglow, provided by arguably the greatest tennis match ever played.

Rafael Nadal, the 22-year-old Mallorcan who already holds four French Open titles, won it when he beat Roger Federer of Switzerland for the Wimbledon men's singles title he was defending for the fifth time, by 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7 in four hours, 46 minutes. However, a point had been reached when the matter of who won and who lost had become almost secondary to the scale of the spectacle and the level of the fight. Federer, 26,understandably questioned the proposition but he did agree that even in defeat – an extremely painful one, he made no attempt to disguise – he was still proud to play in such a match.

"It's not for me to say that was the greatest match ever played at Wimbledon or anywhere else. It is for all who saw it and those who rank these things, but I will say that I was proud to play in such a match and that Rafa played so well.

"No, it was not much fun playing in that light but I suppose it would have been brutal for everyone having to come back in the morning." It would certainly have broken an amazing spell if the game's climax had been delayed overnight.

For much of a match that was interrupted for more than an hour by an afternoon rain shower, it seemed that the usual demarcation lines between sport and deeper human dramas had been crossed as Federer fought his way back from what seemed to be a crisis of self-belief.

At times, the man who had dominated his sport for five years and become, perhaps inevitably, a close friend of the dominant golfer Tiger Woods, was reduced to moments of agonised indecision. His shot selection, normally a matter of wonder and ultimate confidence, seemed to have become hopelessly blurred as his powerful and relentless young challenger strode confidently into a two-set lead.

It seemed then that the tennis age of Roger Federer was at an end, driven down by the new and irresistible force of Rafael Nadal. But it was then that something quite magical happened. Federer started to fight as if this was the most important tennis match he had ever played, a remarkable impression given the fact that he is just two Grand Slam titles away from matching the record 14 of the fabled American Pete Sampras.

Before Nadal's moment of victory, the most stirring moment came when the defending, embattled champion saved match point in the second of two tie-breaks that he won to carry the match into a fifth set. He did it with a backhand down the line which some tennis aficionados are saying will share immortality with the match.

"It was an unbelieavably important shot," said Federer, "but at that point it was simply what I had to do."

Yet if Federer achieved a special kind of glory, that of the defending champion who created a match of historic significance, there was no doubt about the weight of Nadal's achievement.

Last month, on his favourite surface of clay at Roland Garros in Paris he thrashed the great champion in three sets – but last night he invaded Federer's own terrain of grass. By way of celebration, he climbed into the Royal Box to receive the congratulations of the crown prince of Spain, Felipe. Then he acknowledged the extraordinary fight of the fallen champion.

"I'm so proud because I feel I am playing against, and now beating, the best player in the history of tennis. The fight he put up against me was unbelievable and I congratulate him for that. I also have to say that he is a credit to our sport whether he wins or he loses."

It was a generous statement from a brilliant and unforgiving young contender who had played Federer to the very edge of his limits.

Then, when the great player found his nerve again, Nadal found it necessary to beat him again. Wimbledon, and anyone who cares about sport, will never forget it.