WIMBLEDON, England—The scene was eerily reminiscent of the one that occurred on the very same rectangle of green grass and tawny dirt four years ago, long before Centre Court had a roof. Only on that occasion, it was Rafael Nadal falling to the turf in disbelief, the strobe-effect of countless exploding flashbulbs washing over him while Roger Federer stood there, blinking away his disappointment.
I mention this because that historic, 9-7 in-the-fifth triumph by Nadal set in motion a series of events that more or less came full circle today, the moment Andy Murray's cross-court backhand pass was called out to give Federer his seventh Wimbledon title (to share the record with Pete Sampras and Willie Renshaw) and 17th Grand Slam title (a record shared by no one) by the score of 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4.
Federer has been through much in the years since he was dethroned in that epic final, including the swift loss of his No. 1 ranking to Nadal, much that might have impelled a lesser competitor who's 30 years old as you read this to accept a role as Best Supporting Athlete. It's a role that no real champion likes, but one which Federer has been forced to play more often than either Nadal or the newest member of this "trivalry," Novak Djokovic. And he played that role patiently and uncomplainingly, unconvinced down in the bottom of his competitor's heart that it was all that was left to him.
Today, he proved that it wasn't. At a time when numerous fans and pundits questioned his ability to keep up with the breakneck pace of Djokovic and Nadal, when so many whispered that a combination of age and plain old wear made him unlikely to still bear the grueling two-week, best-of-five-sets grind of Grand Slam competition, Federer minted a career-defining moment. He'll become the top-ranked player in the world again on Monday, and in two weeks he'll surpass Pete Sampras' record of 286 total weeks at No. 1.
If all that sounds like a big ask, it was. In order to accomplish these tasks, Federer had to confront and overcome a scenario as challenging as any thought up by a perverse Greek god in mythology. He had to fight what seemed like the nearly irresistible tide of history that was pulling the Scotsman Murray toward becoming the first British man in three-quarters of a century to win here at the wellspring of the game.
It's easy to underestimate the force of the momentum created by Murray's two weeks here, or the sheer power of the pro-Murray longings in Centre Court today. It was a wonderful thing to experience, if somewhat less for Federer than the rest of us. If Federer were going to win that 17th major, putting even more distance between himself and everyone else who has ever played this game, he would have to blow the roof off Centre Court—make as big a statement as any of his career, and that may explain why even when it was over he had some trouble processing it.
He said soon after the match, "Yeah, I mean, honestly this one hasn't quite sunk in yet for some reason. I guess I was trying to be so focused in the moment itself that when it all happened I was just so happy, you know, that it was all over and that the pressure was, you know, gone basically."
The "pressure" to which he referred was less that of this specific day than that created by more than two years of near misses and frustrations at Grand Slam events, disappointments best summed up by the two losses he absorbed here in the last two years—the last one to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, whom Federer led by two sets to none. That loss stayed with him, but he salvaged something from it that stayed with him to this day, and was critical to his success.
"This year I guess I decided in the bigger matches to take it more to my opponent instead of waiting a bit more for the mistakes," he said. "Yeah, this is I guess how you want to win Wimbledon, is by going after your shots, believing you can do it, and that's what I was able to do today."
That was also where Murray came up a little short, despite playing well from the start and nothing less than brilliantly at times. "I tried to take it more to Andy," Federer said. "And I was able to do that. I think, yeah, I went to maybe fetch victory more than he did." Murray came up too short too many times when he had break points, or even those swing points, the winning of which can make your own life easier—and your opponent's that much tougher. Murray converted just two of seven break points, and he failed on a number of occasions to take advantage of 15-30 chances he had with Federer serving.
The most vivid example of Murray's falling just that critical, infinitesimal bit short was the game that broke the match wide open, with Murray serving to stay even at 3-all in the third set. It would be a nearly 20-minute game, consisting of 26 points, 10 deuces and five break points for Federer before he won it to take a 4-2 lead. "Where I got broken in thrid set it was a very long game," Murray said. "But it wasn't like I gave away points. I made pretty good decisions."
What he left unsaid was that he opened the game by winning three straight points for 40-love, a nearly insurmountable lead on grass. By then, the court that had been bathed in bright sunshine at the start of the match had been transformed into an indoor arena, creating conditions that helped Federer more than they did Murray.
It was different at the very start. Murray was aware that he needed a strong start to avoid being steamrolled as savagely as he'd been in his last Grand Slam final (at the 2011 Australian Open, by Djokovic), and he handled the expectations of the audience admirably. He broke Federer to move to 5-4 in the first set.
Throughout those first nine games, the crowd was somewhat restrained—as if unwilling to entrust its heart to Murray until he proved worthy of it. But when he cracked an ace and followed on with a service winner to bag the set, 6-4, the spectators leaped as one. Suddenly Union Jacks were waving left and right; red, white, and blue mylar streamers filled the air; and the face-painters in the crowd embraced and high-fived.
Murray had break points in the fifth and ninth games of the second set (a total of four), but wasted two of them with backhand errors. Federer won the other two outright. They were the last break points but one that Murray would see. Massive dark clouds were already moving in over Centre Court when Federer finally recorded a break that brought him even in the match. Three games into the next set, the skies opened up, the match was halted for 38 minutes, and—unbeknownst to Murray—his doom was pre-ordained. When he lost that 20-minute game shortly after resumption, only the most deluded dreamer felt confident that Murray would mount a fightback.
This was due largely to the roof. Before it was closed, Murray served effectively and handled the wind expertly. Once the lid was cranked closed, Federer was able to focus fully on solving the Murray riddle. With the wind gone, Federer felt safe playing more aggressively. "The wind. . . maybe makes you play more with the elements and less with tactics at times."
Perhaps more important, Federer began to serve much better than he had during the first two sets. "The court plays a bit different (with the roof closed)," Murray said. "He served very well when they closed the roof. Remember, he hasn't lost an indoor match since 2010."
While the Henman Hill dwellers hoped and shivered, Murray's chances slipped away. Federer was just crushing the ball, there's no other way to put it. And while Murray was able to hold his own in many spectacular points (some of which he even won) no matter how viciously Federer lashed out with that forehand or backhand, Murray was unable to do it point after point, either receiving or serving. The other big weapon for Federer on this day was his volley, particularly the cut, semi-drop volley with which he ended numerous points.
When it finally was over, Murray was unable to suppress tears. They weren't really tears of frustration, nor of sadness, for there really was nothing to be sad about. They were tears of emotion, tears caused by the sheer enervation as this fortnight, one that was amazing in so many different ways, for so many different players, from Yaroslava Shvedova to Jonathan Marray to Serena Williams to the two men's finalists.
For Federer, it was a day of vindication, although he never would put it that way, and showed no sign of feeling that way. Let the record-keepers make that determination. Contemplating the recent past, he said: "I think it was a time where I just had to believe that things were going to turn around for me, and not just naturally, but with work."
"I'm getting closer," were the only three words the runner-up was able to choke out during the trophy presentation ceremony. Then he broke down, his throat closed up so tight he could no longer so speak, his eyes welling with tears.
He didn't have to say anymore. That was good enough for everyone here, and I believe they're all willing to wait.
For more on Roger Federer and his history at Wimbledon, check out my new e-book, Roger Federer: the Man, the Matches, the Rivals. It's a tribute to Federer, and what better time to celebrate his astonishing career? I have a funny feeling I'm going to have to do a couple updates to this one before Federer hangs it up. . .