Unrelenting Nadal dethrones Federer in Centre Court classic

We thought we had seen it all when Roger Federer beat Rafael Nadal in five wonderful sets here 12 months ago, but the world's two greatest players surpassed that display with a match of astounding drama here last night. A contest that should go down as the greatest Wimbledon final in history ended in near darkness at 9.15pm with Nadal winning 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7 to end Federer's five-year reign as champion.

At four hours and 48 minutes it was the longest Wimbledon final ever, beating by 32 minutes Jimmy Connors' 1982 victory over John McEnroe. Two rain breaks meant that the match finished nearly seven hours after it had begun.

Federer was attempting to become only the second player – after William Renshaw in 1886 – to win six successive Wimbledon crowns, but, just as Bjorn Borg was denied in the same quest by a left-hander in McEnroe 27 years ago, so Federer fell to a leftie who has become his nemesis.

Four weeks ago Nadal inflicted on 26-year-old Federer the heaviest defeat of his Grand Slam career, dropping only four games to win his fourth successive French Open title, and now he has taken the world No 1's most treasured prize.

Federer defended his title with all the courage we have come to expect of a player who is still tantalisingly two Grand Slam titles short of Pete Sampras's record of 14. Having saved two match points in the fourth set tie-break, the Swiss went within two points of becoming the first man for 60 years to win a Wimbledon final from two sets down.

The Swiss still tops the world rankings, but Nadal could claim with some justification that he is now the world's best player. The 22-year-old Spaniard, who lost to Federer in the previous two finals here, has won 12 of their 18 meetings. For four years Nadal has been acclaimed as the king of clay, but in ending Federer's 65-match unbeaten sequence on grass he proved that he is now a true all-rounder.

Having become the first Spaniard for 36 years to win a grass-court title, at Queen's Club three weeks ago, he now becomes only the second of his countrymen, following Manuel Santana in 1966, to win at the All England Club. He also joins Rod Laver and Borg as the only players in the Open era to win the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year.

Federer described the defeat as "my hardest loss by far", while Nadal said his feelings were impossible to describe. "I always dreamed of winning here when I was a kid, but to win here is just amazing," he said. "I'm just very happy because I played with a very positive attitude all the time and was always fighting a lot."

Rain delayed the start by half an hour, but Nadal was soon into his stride. Striking huge ground strokes from the baseline he broke in the third game to become the first player to take a set off Federer at this year's tournament.

Federer led 4-1 in the second set but then lost five games in a row. The match developed into a familiar pattern, with Federer forcing the issue but Nadal winning nearly all the big points. At 2-3 in the third set Nadal saved four break points – by this stage Federer had converted only one of 12 break opportunities – and when the Swiss served at 0-40 in the following game it seemed that the end was in sight.

However, a Nadal backhand into the net and four successive service winners averted the crisis and when rain started to fall with the Spaniard about to serve at 4-5 Federer was given the chance to regroup.

When they returned the set went into a tie-break, with Federer looking sharper. Nadal saved two set points at 3-6 but Federer took the set with an ace. If the crowd were hungry for more drama it was also clear that they did not want the champion's reign to end. By now there was a new spring in Federer's step, but in the fourth he again had to come back from the brink. From 4-5 and 0-30 down he won four points in succession, though that was nothing compared to what the tie-break had in store.

In drama that matched the thrilling Borg-McEnroe tie-break of 1980, Nadal, with two of his own serves to follow, led 5-2. For once the Spaniard's nerve faltered with a double fault and a netted backhand, though he went on to force two match points.

Federer saved the first with a service winner and the second with a sensational backhand down the line, Nadal having won the previous point with an equally stupendous running forehand winner. At 8-8 Federer hit a cross-court forehand winner and took the set when Nadal hit a backhand return long.

With Federer serving at 2-2 and deuce in the final set the rain came once more. Play resumed at 8.24pm and Federer held serve with two successive aces.

On several occasions the champion looked to be on the point of emulating his victory from two sets down against Nadal in Miami three years ago, but at 7-7 he dropped his serve with two loose forehands. When Nadal served at 8-7 Federer saved a third match point with a stupendous backhand return, but on the fourth the champion dumped a forehand into the net.

Nadal, who said later that he could hardly see the ball because it was so dark, fell on to his back in celebration and then embraced the fallen champion at the net before making what has become the winner's traditional climb into the stand to celebrate with his entourage.

He then strode over the roof of a television commentary box towards the royal box to shake hands with Crown Prince Felipe, the heir to the Spanish throne, and his wife, Princess Letizia. It was a remarkable end to a remarkable day.

Simply the best: Legendary Men's finals

* 2001 Goran Ivanisevic bt Patrick Rafter 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 2-6, 9-7

Destiny called on the Croatian hero, a wild card, to triumph in an epic match in the extraordinary atmosphere of "People's Monday".

* 1992 Andre Agassi bt Goran Ivanisevic 6-7 (8), 6-4, 6-4, 1-6, 6-4

The American winner, who thought grass was "only for cows" for so long, won his one and only Wimbledon as rain drove his opponent barmy.

* 1982 Jimmy Connors bt John McEnroe 3-6, 6-3, 6-7 (2), 7-6 (5), 6-4

This battle of two mouthy Americans on a London lawn gave Connors his only Slam final win over his great rival.

* 1980 Bjorn Borg bt John McEnroe

1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16), 8-6

It had that tie-break and established one of the greatest rivalries in sport as the Swede won his fifth Wimbledon in a row.

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