It had been a long time since tennis fans had seen the sublimely gifted Roger Federer make even the slightest misstep on grass. Yet here was Wimbledon's defending champion knocked on his heels by the bullet serve and blinding forehand of American challenger Andy Roddick, who was rapidly turning Sunday's men's championship into a personal Fourth of July celebration.
Then came the rain, as inevitable at the All England club as strawberries and cream. And the delay that followed, with Roddick leading 4-2 in the third set, gave Federer a chance to rethink his tactics against the American's pyrotechnic display.
When the sun returned, so did Federer's confidence and form. And he rode both to his second consecutive Wimbledon victory, defeating Roddick, 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (7-3), 6-4, to confirm his status as the best player in the game and one of its rare geniuses on grass.
Federer arrived at match point by blitzing a backhand winner down the line and sealed the victory with his 12th ace. Then he dropped to his knees, sank back on the grass in relief and wept.
"I couldn't believe it," said Federer, 22. "Somehow I feel even more joy this year because I had so much pressure going into this tournament. Now, to see my name on the [champions] board twice in a row, I kind of get more joy out of this."
While Federer holds a 7-1 edge against Roddick, Sunday's loss signaled Roddick's arrival as the Swiss champion's most formidable foe. Roddick's game lived and died on his massive serve at Wimbledon last year, and Federer exposed him as a one-dimensional threat in the semifinals, sending him packing in straight sets.
On Sunday, Roddick flashed a cache of new weapons along with his 145 mph serve: a second serve that was nearly as potent, a wicked service return, an upgraded backhand and more confidence attacking the net.
The improved Roddick seemed to startle Federer, and it delighted the capacity crowd of 13,808 at Wimbledon's Centre Court, who rewarded both players with thunderous applause and a prolonged standing ovation after the 2-hour 30-minute match, which twice was delayed by rain.
Roddick was gracious in defeat, coming around the net post to congratulate Federer with an open-armed embrace. And he charmed the crowd further with his self-effacing critique when asked courtside if Wimbledon's fans could look forward to watching his rivalry with Federer unfold for years to come.
"I hope so," Roddick said, "but I'm going to have to start winning some of them to call it a rivalry!"
Against such a rare talent, Roddick decided he had only one smart play: unabashed aggression. And he came out blazing, whacking his serves and his groundstrokes without restraint or doubt.
Roddick's first serve, at 145 mph, was his fastest of the match. He broke Federer in the third game and bolted to a 3-1 lead. Federer was dazed, while former Wimbledon champion Boris Becker, known in his own hard-hitting days as "Boom Boom," marveled at Roddick's raw power from the British Broadcasting Corporation commentary booth. "Can he keep up this level?" Becker asked with awe in voice.
Said Roddick: "I didn't want him to control anything out there. I wanted to play the match on my terms."
Roddick closed the first set in 31 minutes. The players traded service breaks in the second set. With Roddick serving to even it at six games each, Federer got help from the net cord on one point, then fired a forehand passing shot down the line to win the set.
The sky turned gray and gloomy at the start of the third set. Again Roddick broke Federer's serve in third game and led 4-2, fully in command, when rain halted play a second time.
After huddling with his trainer and closest friend, Federer decided to quit swapping groundstrokes with 21-year-old slugger and start following his serves to the net.
"He was putting me under pressure," Federer said. "I couldn't really play the way I wanted to, so I had to change some things. I had to take chances today because otherwise it wouldn't have worked."
Federer emerged from the break a changed man. He lost just three points on his next service games. Roddick, now on the defensive, shaved 15 to 20 mph off his serve, and Federer was quick to attack.
"He was playing it safer, but it's also better for me, obviously," Federer said. "I think this is what also turned the match."
Federer stormed back to force a tiebreaker, serving with such precision that there was barely a rally in it. He claimed the tiebreak, 7-3, to take a two-sets-to-one lead.
Roddick had plenty of chances in the fourth set, but Federer managed to fend off six break points with huge serves and a spot of luck -- again in the form of backhand that tripped over the net for a winner to hold at three games apiece.
As Federer trudged back to the baseline, Roddick strode to the net, grabbed it by the tape and shook it wildly -- a tragicomic expression of frustration that he had to contend not only with Federer's brilliance but also bad luck.
The crowd chuckled at the display of emotion, which seemed to endear the American to his staid British hosts even more.
With the victory, Federer extended his winning streak on grass to 24 matches. Only Bjorn Borg's mark of 41, compiled during a Wimbledon reign that lasted from 1976 to '81, is better.
"Roger was too good today," Roddick said. "I threw the kitchen sink at him, but he went to the bathroom and got the tub."