WIMBLEDON, England — Roger Federer was playing for history. Andy Roddick was playing the match of his life.
On and on they dueled, Federer trying for a record-breaking 15th major championship, Roddick striving for his second, in a Wimbledon final that required more games than any Grand Slam title match in the considerable annals of a sport dating to the 1800s.
“Ten games all, final set,” intoned the chair umpire. Then, “Twelve games all, final set.” And, still later, “Fourteen games all, final set.”
They were each other’s equal for four full sets and nearly the entire 30-game fifth set. Until Federer, far more experienced in such matters, finally edged ahead, breaking Roddick’s serve for the only time in the 77th and last game to close out a 5-7, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5), 3-6, 16-14 victory Sunday.
The epic match – the fifth set alone lasted more than 1 1/2 hours – gave Federer his sixth Wimbledon title.
Add that to five from the U.S. Open, three from the Australian Open and one from the French Open, and Federer’s Grand Slam total rises to 15, one more than Pete Sampras, who flew in from California on Sunday morning to be on hand.
“He’s a legend,” Sampras said. “Now he’s an icon.”
Indeed, Sampras already was among those labeling Federer the greatest tennis player ever, and there’s no doubt the 27-year-old from Switzerland keeps bolstering his case.
“It’s not really one of those goals you set as a little boy,” Federer told the Centre Court crowd during the trophy ceremony, “but, man, it’s been quite a career. And quite a month.”
Federer won the French Open four Sundays earlier to complete a career Grand Slam and tie Sampras with 14 major titles (Margaret Smith Court owns the women’s record of 24).
“Sorry, Pete,” Roddick said. “I tried to hold him off.”
He weathered Federer’s career-high 50 aces and his 107 total winners in the longest match and longest fifth set in major final history, topping marks set in 1927.
“Frustrating, at times, because I couldn’t break Andy ’til the very, very end,” Federer said. “So satisfaction is maybe bigger this time around to come through, because I couldn’t control the match at all.”
The tennis gods – as well as Sampras, Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg, all in front-row seats – must have enjoyed every moment of the 4-hour, 16-minute tussle.
Federer, who can make it all look so easy, was forced to work darned hard to eclipse Sampras’ mark, and Roddick was left heartbreakingly close to finally winning Wimbledon.
Roddick dropped to 0-3 in finals at the All England Club, also beaten by Federer in 2004 and 2005. After the match ended on a shanked forehand by the sixth-seeded American, the two men hugged at the net. A mere handshake wouldn’t do.
The winner donned a specially tailored white jacket with a gold “15” stitched on the back, while the loser – a word that hardly seems fair in this case – slumped in his chair, head bowed, until rising to acknowledge the spectators’ chorus of “Rodd-ick! Rodd-ick!”
“Sports, or tennis, is cruel sometimes. We know it,” Federer said. “I went through some five-setters in Grand Slam finals, too, and ended up losing. It’s hard.”
A year ago, on the same lawn, Federer’s five-year reign as Wimbledon champion ended in a 9-7 fifth set defeat against his nemesis, Rafael Nadal. Six weeks later, Federer relinquished to Nadal the No. 1 ranking after a record 237 consecutive weeks at the top.
But Nadal did not defend his Wimbledon title, citing sore knees, and Federer not only regained his championship at the All England Club – the Grand Slam he says means the most to him – but returns to No. 1 today.
“It’s staggering that I’ve been able to play so well for so many years now and stay injury-free,” Federer said. “I knew what it took to win the big ones. … It’s crazy that I’ve been able to win so many in such a short period of time.”
Sampras – whose 14th major title came in his last match, at age 31, at the 2002 U.S. Open – and his wife appeared in the Royal Box during the changeover after Sunday’s third game. Walking to the baseline directly below, Federer acknowledged Sampras with a nod of the head and a little wave.
“I thought, ‘I don’t want to be rude,’ you know?” Federer said.
As he enjoyed the first post-victory moments in the locker room – a more muted celebration than usual, owing to Roddick’s presence – members of the grounds crew entered and presented him with the Centre Court net.
Another keepsake for Federer’s ever-more-crowded trophy room.