Record-setting Slam rife with tension

WIMBLEDON, England -- At some point early in the fifth set, this seriously splendid match seemed to become more important than the history it might make.

For the second consecutive year, the posh patrons here at the All England Club were treated to a scintillating men's final that spilled into extra time. A year ago, Rafael Nadal took down Roger Federer 9-7 in the fifth in one of the most acclaimed matches of all time. And now this on a Sunday afternoon that turned into evening:

Federer, attempting to break Pete Sampras' record of 14 Grand Slam singles victories, against Andy Roddick, a player of admittedly lesser skills, but dogged and determined and, upon reflection, heroic while playing the match of his life.

Actor Russell Crowe, watching in the gorgeous, golden light, may have wondered whether he was watching the best and bloodiest clashing scenes from "Gladiator." As the games of the fifth set spun into double digits, BBC broadcaster and three-time Wimbledon champion Boris Becker said it reminded him of a soccer game decided on penalty kicks.

But even with the unnatural tension hanging on every point, Federer and Roddick played on, moving forward, making massive shot after massive shot. It wasn't until the ultimate point -- the 436th of the match -- when Federer finally broke Roddick's serve.

As a result, he was a 5-7, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5), 3-6, 16-14 winner over Roddick. In terms of games, it was the longest fifth set in Grand Slam history.

After four hours, 18 minutes, Federer finally moved past Sampras on tennis' all-time list. His 15th major title was, appropriately, his most difficult to secure.

"It's not really one of those goals you set as a boy," Federer said. "Man, it's been quite a career. It feels amazing. You don't play tennis to set records. It's one of the greatest ones to have.

"It's staggering that I've been able to play so well for so long. It's crazy that I've been able to win so many in such a short time."

Roddick won the first set and seemed to have the match won when he held four set points in the second-set tiebreaker. The All England Club spent more than $100 million to keep the weather out, but Roddick staged his own, unlikely reign delay, so to speak.

Sampras, who was on hand for the match, said, "I feel bad for Andy -- you can see he's distraught. This was his chance. Roger -- the great ones -- at the end, he had just a little bit more."

The raw numbers were simply staggering:

• The final set lasted 95 minutes, a match in and of itself.

• Federer hit a career-high 50 aces and an amazing 107 winners, leavened by only 38 unforced errors. Roddick had 27 aces and 74 winners.

• The match required 77 games, the most ever in a Wimbledon final.

"The match could have lasted a few more hours," Federer said. "It was a crazy match. My head is still spinning."

Sampras was 31 when he won his last Grand Slam, the 2003 U.S. Open. Federer turns 28 next month, and you get the idea he might run up that number significantly. For a better perspective, consider this: Sampras played in 52 majors to achieve his record. Sunday was only Federer's 41st Grand Slam event.

A little more housekeeping: Federer won his sixth Wimbledon title in a span of seven years and became only the third player to win six or more, joining Sampras and William Renshaw, who each won seven titles. How well does Federer's game play on the grass? He's won 48 of his last 49 matches here.

Appropriately, Federer will regain his world No. 1 ranking Monday, 46 weeks after Nadal took it from him.

Rewind the clock 13 months, when Federer was blinded in the final at Roland Garros in 2008, when he won only four games in three sets against Nadal. At Wimbledon, the two rivals played one of the best matches ever, and even though he was only a point away from winning, Federer lost. And then it happened again early this year at the Australian Open. When he wept openly during the trophy presentation, he seemed to be mourning the passing of his dominance, for he had lost to Nadal in three Grand Slam finals within eight months.

And now this: back-to-back titles, first at Roland Garros -- a first for Federer and the completion of a career Grand Slam -- and now at Wimbledon, where he lost so painfully a year ago.

After weeks of speculation, ultimately Sampras did the right thing. He got on a plane Saturday with his wife, Bridgette, and weathered the 12-hour flight from Los Angeles.

He hadn't been on the grounds here at the All England Club since 2002, when he exited ignominiously in the second round. Sampras arrived fashionably late, during a changeover break, with the score 2-1 for Roddick at 2:15 p.m. local time. Wearing a stylish gray suit with a light blue shirt and tie to match, Sampras walked down the steps of the Royal Box and took his seat among the pantheon of tennis greats that included Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg. He stood briefly to acknowledge the crowd and received a round of warm applause.

Federer said he learned that Sampras was coming late Saturday. He said that he actually felt nervous when Sampras entered the Royal Box.

"I said hello to him [after he arrived]," Federer said. "I don't usually do that, but I didn't want to be rude."

In the end, Roddick never gave up.

He'd fall into small holes and repeatedly serve himself out. He began to labor physically when the score hit 10-all, and while serving at 14-15, he understandably looked exhausted.

He trailed in the last game love-30, but he kept digging out. Roddick had saved each of the six break points against him but had nothing left for the seventh. Federer stroked a big backhand, and Roddick could barely get a racket on it.

When Roddick, tears in his eyes, received the silver runner-up tray -- for the third time -- the crowd gave him a roar for a champion. They chanted his name.

"I just want to say congratulations to Roger," Roddick said, his voice breaking. "He deserves everything he gets. Well done, mate.

"It was a pleasure playing here today in front of all these great champions. I still hope that my day will be up there as the winner of this tournament."

Federer will not be content with 15 major titles. He arrived for his postmatch interview wearing a shirt bearing his new agenda: There is no finish line.

Fueled by Federer's surprising win at the French Open, the debate has been raging for a month now. Does the record of 15 major titles make Federer the greatest men's player of all time?

Laver, the player usually invoked in this discussion along with Sampras, isn't willing to go that far.

"I've always thought that you're the best in your era," Laver said Sunday. "That, to me, is a pretty good compliment to your game, to your tennis, over your career. If Roger gets to 16, 17 Grand Slams, people in the press are the ones that are wanting to say it: 'Who's the best ever?'

"My thought is that if you're the best in your era, you know, and you probably don't even know who Bill Tilden is, but was he the best ever? So it's hard for anyone, I think, to come out and say who's the best ever."

Afterward, the greatest of the past champions gathered for a photo opportunity in the All England Club. There they were, the Mount Rushmore of men's tennis, from left to right: Borg, Sampras, Federer and Laver -- 22 Wimbledon titles among them. And they all touched the trophy again.

For Sampras, there is no debate.

"He's got everything," Sampras said. "He's a legend. Now he's an icon. He's got 15 majors -- that's a lot of majors. That's a lot of work.

"Greatest? I have to give it to him. The critics say Laver, and Nadal's beaten him a few times, but in my book he is."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.