The Spaniard finally prevailed in the gathering gloom at 9.16 pm after a record-breaking four hours and 48 minutes of astonishing sporting theatre. The great Swiss played his part in a memorable contest but Nadal emerged with a deserved 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5/7), 6-7 (8/10), 9-7 victory – in the process becoming the first man to win the French Open and Wimbledon back to back since Bjorn Borg in 1980 – and capped a glorious fortnight in which he has taken his game to new heights. The final, in which Nadal became the first Spaniard to win the men's singles title since Manolo Santana in 1966, instantly goes down as a Wimbledon classic, arguably the best since the legendary Borg-McEnroe final in 1980, which the Swede won in the fifth set after famously losing a marathon tiebreaker 18-16 in an earlier set.
Having conclusively defeated the world No 1 in their previous meeting, albeit on the clay of Roland Garros, Nadal went into this men's singles final with far more confidence than in the previous two years. He showed that as early as the third game of the first set, taking the first break point of the match to go 2-1 ahead.
The No 2 seed hardly challenged the Swiss player's serve for the rest of the set, but he did not need to. While Federer was uncharacteristically off the pace, and his timing slightly out, Nadal coped with everything his opponent and the awkward wind could throw at him.
The first time he was under pressure during a curiously understated opening set was when he was serving for it at 5-4 and 15-30. He handled that point well, however, and, after squandering two set points, fought his way out of another spot of trouble from advantage Federer, with a serve that the holder could only return into the net. The same happened on the next point as well, and Nadal was a set to the good after three-quarters of an hour in a match which, because of rain, had begun 35 minutes past the scheduled starting time of 2pm.
The second set took a distinctly different route to the same conclusion. Federer held his own serve in the opening game, converted his first break point in the next, then held again to lead 3-0. Normally that is enough for the world No 1, but after three more routine service games Nadal broke back. That was the second of a five-game winning run for the second seed from 4-1 down. He fended off one break point to make it 4-4, and then broke again. Serving for the set at 5-4, he again needed to save another break point. Having done so, however, he composed himself anew, and won the set when a limp backhand from Federer – his weak point for most of the match – went into the net.
The first rain delay came nine games into the third set, but it was uncertain whether it was going to work in favour of the No 1 seed. By the time play was halted at 4.50pm, he had taken a 5-4 lead, having averted a mini-crisis in the last game played when he found himself at 30-30 on his own serve – a mere six points from a straight-sets defeat.
Two solid serves from the champion helped him get out of that tight spot, but he should not have got into it in the first place, having had his chances to take command of the set. His first task, to end Nadal's run of five games on the trot, was accomplished with ease in the opening game. After an easy hold by the challenger Federer took a 2-1 lead in a game which saw Nadal slip and bring on the trainer for an assessment of his knee. That assessment was complete during the normal change-over, but although Nadal did not require a medical time-out, his equilibrium had been knocked a little askew, and Federer should have capitalised in the next game.
Nadal saved two break points, the second by succesfully challenging a call of in on a Federer drive, and he then took two more easy points to level at 2-2. After again holding easily, Federer had four more break points in the sixth game, but played lamely on each of them to pass up a big opportunity. He saved a break point himself to go 4-3 ahead, Nadal levelled, and then Federer played two of his strongest points of the match to take a 5-4 lead.
It was around an hour and 25 minutes before the players could restart the contest and there was a risk that unless Nadal wrapped the match up quickly it could go into a second day. But the best he could do was twice serve successfully to take the set into a tiebreak – one in which Federer was never behind, and won 7-5 with an ace on his third set point. With the momentum now in his favour, Federer played calmly throughout the fourth set. Nadal too, to his credit, maintained his composure well as game after game went with serve.
In the tenth game Federer had to serve at 4-5 to hold on to his title, and he held his nerve when two points away from defeat at 30-30 to make it 5-5. Nadal held more easily, Federer took it to 6-6, and we were in a tiebreak again.
After winning the first point Federer fell behind, and looked down and out at 5-2. Somehow, he recovered. He failed to convert set points at 6-5 and 7-6, then a winning passing shot by Nadal gave the Spaniard match point at 8-7.
A passing shot of just as great quality from Federer saved the day for him, and then, suddenly freed of tension, he rattled through the next two points to win the breaker 10-8. The wind was getting up again as the fifth set began, and play was on serve at 2-2 and deuce when the return of the rain forced another suspension at deuce on the Federer serve. Exactly half an hour later and the two were back on for Act Three.
Federer opened up with two aces to take a 3-2 lead, then Nadal held easily for 3-3 as the match entered its fifth hour. He had to save a break point before making it 4-4, but that was the last in the match for six long, tense games. Then, with visibility worsening by the minute, Federer got into trouble while serving at 7-7. He saved three breaks, two with magnificent aces, but crucially lost the fourth when sending a forehand long. Nadal, serving for the championship with new balls, carved out his third match point when a Federer backhand went wide, but the Swiss player showed admirable courage to save the point using the same stroke which had just gone wrong.
Then Nadal had another match point, the fourth of the contest, and this time he was not to be denied. Federer did enough to get the service back, but on the fourth stroke of the rally he hit a forehand into the net. Wimbledon had a new champion, the first in five years, and Federer's reign was over.