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Nadal acknowledged as much after accepting the silver gilt cup from the Duke of Kent. With the Centre Court crowd of 15,000 standing and cheering, Nadal spoke about the challenge of competing in the same era as Federer, whom he hailed as "the best player" in history.
"He's still number one," Nadal said, as the Swiss looked on. "He's still the best. He's still [a] five-time champion here. Right now, I have only one."
Nadal was on pace to win his first Wimbledon trophy in straight sets in the early going.
He broke Federer in the third game. And in 48 minutes, he accomplished what no player had done all tournament: win a set against Federer.
Nadal won the next set with similar tactics, hammering away at Federer's backhand at every opportunity. It wasn't that Federer played poorly. He was just shy of perfection, addled by the gusting wind and the wicked spin on Nadal's ball.
Federer changed tactics in the third set, coming to the net more readily to end the long rallies Nadal loves. But with neither able to break serve, a tiebreaker was needed. Federer fired four aces to force a fourth set.
A thrilling display of shot-making followed. In his four years as the world's No. 1 player, Federer has grown accustomed to wielding his racket like a magician's wand. His cross-court forehand is a wonder to behold, particularly when the ball skims the sideline just so and takes a sharp turn out of the court. Even Federer must marvel at his artistry.
But Nadal denied him that luxury so many times Sunday because he kept retrieving balls that would have been winners against lesser men and firing back winners in kind. Still, another tiebreaker was needed.
Nadal bolted to a 5-2 lead but played his worst two points of the match to give Federer a reprieve. After fending off a match point at 6-7, Federer soon found himself again in trouble when Nadal blasted a beautiful passing shot down the line.
Federer answered with a backhand passing shot even more beautiful than Nadal's and went on to win the tiebreak and pull even at two sets each.
Surely, Federer thought, Nadal would be disappointed after that. The momentum had swung his way, Federer thought to himself.
But Nadal's optimism proved as relentless as his athleticism. While Federer assumed he was brooding during the changeover that followed, Nadal was giving himself a pep talk, telling himself, as he sat on his chair, how well he was playing. Yes, he had made a few mistakes, he told himself. But Federer had hit some great shots. Why get down on himself for that? Why not play on, just as he had before, and see what happened?
The fifth set was played out against alternating chants of "Ra-fa!" and "Ro-ger!" The difference in their ability could have fit on the head of a pin. And it seemed impossible that either could manage the two-game advantage required to win the match, with fifth-set tiebreakers not allowed at Wimbledon.
Nadal got the critical break to take an 8-7 lead. And with the light fading, he blasted one last shot that Federer couldn't handle.