The 15,000 spectators with tickets for yesterday's Australian Open final entered Rod Laver Arena ready to acknowledge the player many regard as the greatest of all time. By the time they left, well after midnight, some were wondering which of the two men they had just watched would be given that acclaim come the end of their careers.
Roger Federer was chasing the one Grand Slam title he needs to equal Pete Sampras' all-time record of 14, but instead it was his nemesis, 22-year-old Rafael Nadal, who claimed a sixth major title, winning 7-5, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 6-2 after four hours and 23 minutes.
Only Bjorn Borg has won six Grand Slam crowns more quickly – the Swede did so in 18 tournaments compared with Nadal's 20 – and if the Spaniard keeps this up he will soon be overtaking Federer. When the 27-year-old Swiss was Nadal's age he had only two Grand Slam titles to his name.
If his loss to Nadal in last year's epic Wimbledon final hit Federer hard, the pain of this defeat was equally evident during the post-match presentations. As Federer thanked the crowd for their support, the tears welled up and he was unable to complete his speech. "God, this is killing me," he said.
Nadal climbed on to the podium and put his arm around the player for whom he has so much respect, whereupon Federer walked back to the microphone. "I don't want to have the last word," he said. "This guy deserves that." Federer's tears continued to flow as Nadal told his great rival: "Roger, sorry for today. I really know how you feel right now. It's really tough, but remember you are a great champion, one of the best in history, and you have proved that."
All five of Federer's defeats in Grand Slam finals have been to Nadal, who was presented with his trophy by Rod Laver. The Spaniard has now beaten Federer five times in succession and is more than 3,000 points clear of him at the top of the world rankings, having ended his record-breaking run as world No 1 last summer.
In winning on the hard courts here, Nadal became the first player since Andre Agassi to win Grand Slam titles on three different surfaces, a feat that has so far eluded Federer. Nadal now holds three of the four Grand Slam crowns, with the US Open the only major he has yet to conquer.
The Spaniard, who has now beaten Federer in 13 of their 19 meetings, is a wonder of nature, a man whose stamina and resilience seem to know no bounds. Those who thought he would struggle to recover after his marathon semi-final victory on Friday night over Fernando Verdasco – at five hours and 14 minutes the longest match in Australian Open history – were confounded by his domination of the final set, in which Federer's game went to pieces. Nadal had to defy the pain from his right hamstring, which he had strained against Verdasco and for which he needed treatment during the third set.
While the match lacked the quality or sheer theatre of their Wimbledon final last summer, there were some similarities. Nadal again played most of the big points superbly, while Federer regularly failed to capitalise on his opportunities. The fact that Federer lost despite winning 174 points to Nadal's 173 was evidence of the Spaniard's ability to find something extra when it really mattered. "I had many chances," Federer admitted afterwards. "I missed them and they cost me dearly."
There were many flashes of brilliance but plenty of mistakes too and there was no sustained period when both men were at their peak. Federer looked as peerless as ever on his forehand, but Nadal sensibly concentrated his attack on the world No 2's weaker flank. The usual roles were reversed on serve. While Federer put only 52 per cent of his first serves in court and made double faults at critical moments, the Swiss had trouble returning Nadal's serve.
It has been one of the weaker aspects of his game in the past, but this time it was a crucial weapon, particularly when he swung the ball away from Federer's backhand.
With three mishits and a double fault, Federer dropped his serve in the very first game, only to break back immediately with a series of cracking forehands.
The Swiss broke again to lead 4-2, but Nadal won five of the next six games to take the first set. At 58 minutes it was one minute shorter than the previous night's women's final.
The second set went with serve until Federer upped the pace in the eighth game, greeting his break of serve with a skip of delight. By now the former Wimbledon champion was starting to dominate and Nadal was forced into desperate defence in the middle of the third set. He saved three break points from 0-40 at 4-4 and three more at 5-5. When Federer served at 3-6 in the tie-break the unthinkable occurred as the Swiss served a double fault.
The fourth set swayed back and forth. Federer broke to lead 2-0, was furious with himself for dropping serve in the next game, saved five break points during a memorable game at 2-2 and then broke again to go 4-2 up.
When he served out to level the match it seemed that the momentum had swung decisively, but the final set was a curious anti-climax. Nadal dropped only three points on his serve and made just two unforced errors in the set compared with Federer's 14.
Serving at 1-2 and 30-15, Federer served a double fault and played two poor backhands to give Nadal the vital break. His spirit seemed to have been broken and although he saved two match points when serving at 2-5 it was only delaying the inevitable. On the third Federer put a forehand out, upon which Nadal fell on his back in celebration.
His exertions having finally caught up with him, Nadal said he felt dizzy by the time he got back to the locker room. That soon passed, but for Federer the pain of defeat will linger long. "I love this game," he said. "It means the world to me, so it hurts when you lose."
Majorcan second best in six appeal stakes
Fastest men to win six Grand Slam titles in the Open era
Player - Majors played - Sixth Slam title
Bjorn Borg - 18 - 1978, Wimbledon
Rafael Nadal - 20 - 2009, Australian Open
John McEnroe - 21 - 1984, Wimbledon
Mats Wilander - 25 - 1988, French Open
Pete Sampras - 25 - 1995, Wimbledon
Roger Federer - 26 - 2005, US Open