WIMBLEDON, England -- In near darkness, one of the greatest tennis matches ever played concluded yesterday with Roger Federer hitting a short forehand into the net and with Rafael Nadal flat on his back on the grass with the flashes lighting up his exhausted, elated face.
Nadal's 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7 win signified the end of a record streak at Wimbledon, the oldest of all tennis tournaments, and perhaps the end of an era, too.
No one had beaten Federer at Wimbledon or on grass since 2002. He had reeled off five consecutive singles titles and 40 victories in a row here, as well as a record 65 straight wins on grass. Nadal had come the closest in last year's final, pushing his friendly rival to five sets before ending up in tears in the locker room as Federer equaled Bjorn Borg's modern men's record with his fifth straight win.
That emotional match immediately took its place among the best Wimbledon finals, but this five-set classic of 4 hours, 48 minutes - played on a rainy, gusty day - was better yet and also the longest final in Wimbledon's lengthy history.
"Tried everything," Federer said in his post-match remarks to the crowd. "Got a little late and everything. But look, Rafa's a deserving champion. He just played fantastically."
Federer, the No. 1 seed, saved two match points in the fourth-set tiebreaker and was two points away from victory with Nadal serving at 5-4, 30-all in the fifth set. But Nadal, like his foe, has a powerful will as well as a powerful forehand.
And though Nadal had to keep serving to stay in the match in the fading light, he eventually wrested control of the match from Federer, breaking his serve in the 15th game to go up 8-7. He then served for the title, and though Federer saved a third match point with a bold backhand return that Nadal could not handle, he could not save the next one.
Nadal, 22, dropped to the grass, his racket flying out of his left hand, and among those standing and cheering in the front row of the royal box were Manuel Santana and Borg. Nadal joined them by becoming the first Spanish man to win here since Santana in 1966 and by becoming the first man to complete the grueling French Open-Wimbledon double since Borg in 1980.
Nadal, as is his wont, did not strike a triumphant tone in victory. He has long been deeply respectful of Federer and his tennis in public, even as he has built a 12-6 career record against him and beaten him in the past three French Open finals.
"He's still the best," Nadal said. "He's still five-time champion here. Right now I have one, so for me, it's a very, very important day."
Federer will still be ranked No. 1 today, but this has clearly been Nadal's season with victories in two of the first three Grand Slam tournaments. In the other, Federer was beaten by the young Serb Novak Djokovic in the semifinals. Though Federer came into 2008 hoping to match Pete Sampras' career record of 14 Grand Slam singles titles, he is still holding at 12.
But he certainly responded like a champion to Nadal's pressure yesterday. Down two sets to none, he worked his way back into contention, weathering an 81-minute rain delay late in the third set and ultimately forcing a fifth by saving two match points in the fourth-set tiebreaker.
Rain would later drive the players off court once more early in the fifth set with the score 2-2, deuce on Federer's serve. But though there were fears that the conclusion of the match might have to be postponed until today, the players resumed play 28 minutes later and were - barely - able to finish.
Afterward, the new champion was asked whether it was the greatest match he had ever played. Plenty of others around the grounds, including John McEnroe - whose five-set loss to Borg in 1980 gets many votes - were already calling it the greatest match they had seen.
"I don't know if it's the best," Nadal said.
Then he thought about it for a moment.
"Probably," he continued. "Probably the best, yes."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.