Until that extraordinary fifth set this afternoon's contest between Roger Federer and Andy Roddick had only occasionally flirted with greatness. It was always tense and often gripping but that owed as much to the weight of the occasion and the serendipity of tennis's scoring system as it did to the drama of the tennis itself. The fact that, in tennis, you are never more than two points away from a potentially game-changing moment ensured that even matches dominated by seemingly-impregnable serves retain their interest. The tension is provided by the potential of what might happen after the next point.
That's especially true of matches like today's final in which opportunities to break serve are rarer than British men appearing in the second week of the championships. (Andy Murray, mind you, should not be too disheartened: there's no shame in losing to a man playing the best tennis of his career.) And so as that remarkable final set unfolded one was dumbfounded by the quality of serving and, consequently, ever more keenly aware that a single lapse would determine the outcome of the contest. Each time the returner was afforded a glimpse of hope - 15-all, less frequently 15-30 - the server delivered fresh thunderbolts to put an end to such wishful thinking and, happily for the spectators, prolong the delicious agony of an epic final set.
In the end, of course, we witnessed the right result. If Roger Federer was going to break Pete Sampras's record of 14 major titles it was right that he do so on the court which, more than any other, has been central to their greatness. Right too, that Sampras should be present to witness a little, but significant, moment in tennis history.
But how one felt for poor Roddick! Three times a runner-up at Wimbledon, three times vanquished by Federer. They have met 21 times and though many of those matches have been close, Roddick has prevailed only twice. One can't help but think that, this week at least, Roddick would have beaten any other player in the world. Even Rafael Nadal, against whom he has a 2-5 record.
Roddick has often been criticised in the United States for not winning more Grand Slams. But it is hardly his fault that his emergence was so swiftly eclipsed by that of Federer and, then, later, Nadal. But the dedication he has shown and the determination with which he has persevered, retooling his game and never, to my knowledge, exhibiting any signs of self-pity is an example that Murray and Novak Djokovic would be well-advised to heed
And the class and grace and humour with which Roddick met his fate was, in its own way, as inspirational as anything he'd produced on the tennis court this past fortnight. That it offered a lesson to sportsmen in other sports scarcely needs to be said. If Roddick were somehow to win next year then, with the possible exception of Murray, it's hard to think there would be a more popular champion and certainly none more deserving.
There's little that need be said about Federer, save to observe that his brilliance permits one to forgive him the naffness of a tracksuit already emblazoned with "15" and brought out for the presentation of the trophy. Indeed, there are times when one rather wonders if Federer isn't in fact, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit of a dork. But it doesn't matter, because the charm and thrilling brilliance of his tennis renders everything else irrelevant. That includes the solipsism that is, perhaps, part of being a great champion. When Federer remarked that he knew how Roddick felt because he too had lost a gut-wrenchingly close Wimbledon final, the American reminded him, quite correctly, that the situations were scarcely comparable given that Federer already held five Wimbledon titles whereas Roddick, of course, is still seeking his first.
There's a guilessness to Federer's self-absorbtion however, that permits one to forgive him it. It's not surprising, perhaps, that he should be so friendly with Tiger Woods. Who else can really understand what it's like to be the best at what you do, not just now, but, perhaps, ever? Yet while Woods is admired, I wonder if he's really loved? There is, that's to say, more affection for Federer than there is for Tiger and less of a sense, despite the Nike stuff, that Federer is so keenly interested in the corporate side of his image. Then again, when Federer plays a poor shot one senses that he's bewildered by how that malfunction happened; when Woods fluffs a chip or clunks an iron into a greenside bunker one senses a petulance that seems to say "How dare that happen?" as though Tiger was being insulted by the golfing gods or something. Then again, Federer in full-flight is an awe-inspiring joy to watch; Woods merely awe-inspiring.
Not that talent or aesthetic appeal is enough. There's been fortitude too. To think that earlier this year Federer had lost nearly a dozen consecutive matches against Nadal, Murray and Djokovic is to recall that rumours of his irreversible decline were not merely examples of wishful thinking. Nor could one escape the sense that, depsite his victory in last year's US Open, the losses to Nadal at Wimbledon and Melbourne Park constituted a brace of hammer-blows from which Federer might never recover.
How quickly it all changes. Nadal's injury troubles have obviously helped, but there's no guarantee he would have reached the final this week. In any case, we may look back and see Federer's victory against Nadal in Madrid as the most important match of the year. It gave Federer hard evidence to justify his belief in himself and, perhaps, the reassurance that he could still win important tournaments.
One of the oddities of the Federer-Nadal rivalry is that Federer's reputation might be higher if he werent such an accomplished clay court player. For the last five years he has been the second-best clay-courter in the world. That's meant that, in final after final, he's been beaten by the greatest, Nadal, ensuring that the Spaniard has won no fewer than 13 of their matches. 11 of their 20 encounters have been on clay, however, and Federer has won only two of them. On other surfaces he holds a 5-4 advantage.
Matches on clay count, of course, but the point is simply that if there were as many tournaments played on grass as there are on clay or that Nadal was as consistent on hard courts as Federer is on clay (they've never met in the US Open for instance) then the head-to-head record might well look rather different. The gap between Federer and Nadal on grass and hard courts may not be as wide as that between Nadal and Federer on clay, but it still, Wimbledon and Australia notwithstanding, exists.
Ideally, then, the pair will play one another in the final at Flushing Meadows later this summer. Then again, Roddick deserves another crack at Federer too and there remains the splendid possibility that the US Open might prove Andy Murray's finest hour. The circus rolls on and New York should be quite a spectacle.
This has been a great Wimbledon and a championship that ended, happily, with the right result and a further reminder that we're really pretty lucky to see Roger Federer play tennis the way he does. Long may that continue to be the case.