Fortunate Federer's fantastic fifth

From beginning to end, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were two men alone on their own green planet, Shot-making geniuses way above the crowd of their colleagues. Tennis can't be performed with more imagination, style, brilliance, and manoeuvring, writes Bud Collins.

Like a ghost of championships past, the pale visage of Bjorn Borg floated above the tennis pasture that used to be his. Actually, he was seated among the swells of Wimbledon's Royal Box, behind a baseline in Centre Court, waiting to be caught.

As tennis royalty goes, Borg stands out as the primo of those who have ruled Wimbledon. Women pursued him, other fans adored him, too, as the goldilocked Swede rang up five consecutive championships between 1976 and 1980, and sparked a tennis epidemic.

But on July 8, as sunshine highlighted his silver hair, he was chased again. Not by voluptuaries and well-wishers, but by a guy from Switzerland, the Basel Dazzle, Roger Federer � and Borg was caught. His Wimbledon winning streak was matched by Federer, as well as his stash of major titles: 11.

However, Federer very nearly lost out to Borg and another person hounding him: Rafael Nadal. Borg said he showed up to congratulate Federer, and seemed pleased to share his tremendous run of victories. But who knows.

Athletes can be very possessive of their records.

Elizabeth Ryan, who for 45 years held the record for Wimbledon titles, 19, resented Billie Jean King trailing her. Ryan couldn't bear the thought of losing it. In 1979, a day before King (and Martina Navratilova) won the doubles for a 20th crown, Ryan, 87, keeled over and died at Wimbledon.

Although nobody died at the Big W on July 8, Federer's shot at Borg almost perished in the frantic fifth set of perhaps the finest final here since Borg edged John McEnroe in their masterpiece 27 years ago. No longer mystified by grass underfoot, the 21-year-old claymaestro, Nadal, twice stood on the verge of totalling the Federer bandwagon.

Fortunately for Federer, loser of ? the French Open final to Nadal, the muscular lefty can't produce the extra-high spinning bounce on grass that nullified Federer's backhand on clay.

Had the Spaniard grabbed one of four break points � 15-40 in both the third and fifth games � he would have been on his way to severing Federer's string of match wins at Wimbledon, and overall on grass, that became 34 and 54, respectively.

It didn't happen because the greatness genie within Federer asserted itself. Within six minutes, the 3-hour-45-minute battle flip-flopped and went to the champion, 7-6 (9-7), 4-6, 7-6 (7-3), 2-6, 6-2. He has been No. 1 for four years because he remains cool and thoughtful in the rough, and cranks that deceptively deadly serve. It's no faster than Venus Williams' � in the 120-mile-per-hour range � but they seek the lines and corners like homing pigeons. It was good for 24 aces and 19 service winners, the backbone of his winning the crucial tiebreakers.

"Maybe the difference was his serve," said Nadal. His own sizzling passing shots, the onerous inside-out forehands, and even his improved volleying would have discouraged anyone else � but in the crunch, it was the Lone Roger riding to his own rescue.

It came early in the fifth, at 1-1 and 2-2, as Nadal opened those break-point holes at 15-40. Federer saved the first with a big serve, and was lucky on the second as Nadal missed a forehand drive along the sideline � a fraction wide. Two games later, same thing, 15-40. Federer said, "I got out of the first... when the second comes around, I'm thinking, �Oh, my God! I don't know if I can do it.'"

Nadal blew a second-serve return, then Federer rammed a service winner. Gone were the breakers that could have lifted Nadal to 4-1.

"I served well, played smart," Federer said. "I was so happy when I came out of that because I knew he'd probably missed his chance."

Suddenly, Federer was the monster. Having eluded the spiky break points, he railroaded the remaining three games, scoring the decisive break himself (to 4-2) on a dizzying point in which he hit three lines, closing with a forehand winner.

"At 5-2, I was getting emotional, starting to cry. I had to calm down to get it done," he said.

From beginning to end, they were two men alone on their own green planet, shot-making geniuses way above the crowd of their colleagues. Tennis can't be performed with more imagination, style, brilliance, and manoeuvring.

Federer's rifling groundies, contrasted with Nadal's mastery of spin. They were thieves in short pants, constantly, amazingly wowing the full house of 13,800 by stealing points from each other on the run, catching up with balls, and belting them for winners.

None of Federer's 10 previous major finals had gone the five-set distance.

His last Wimbledonian five-set encounter was won, as a 19-year-old, over Pete Sampras. That prevented Sampras from equalling Borg's five straight titles.

"It was a huge occasion for me," Federer said of the match.

"Huge pressure from Bjorn Borg watching. John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, too, and Boris Becker. Then, in the end, to lift the trophy..."

New York Times News Service