Reliving the match of a generation

Like the king he is, Bjorn Borg sat in the first row of the Royal Box for the 2008 Wimbledon men's final.

As he watched the two players warming up on the lawn of Centre Court, he knew one of them would carry away a significant piece of his tennis legacy. For Roger Federer, it would be a sixth consecutive championship at the All England Club, one better than Borg's record. For Rafael Nadal, it would be a Roland Garros-Wimbledon double, something that hadn't happened since Borg accomplished it in 1980.

"I cannot sleep," the silver-haired Swede had joked a few days earlier.

"No," he said softly, holding up an elegant hand. "Records are meant to be broken."

Some 5,500 miles away, another invested spectator rose at dawn on July 6 in Southern California. Pete Sampras, then the all-time leader with 14 Grand Slam singles titles, was admittedly curious which player would draw one step closer to his record.

"I felt that Roger was probably going to win," Sampras told ESPN producer Julie McGlone back in March. "On that surface, he's just a better player. I just thought it was a matter of time before Roger wins that match."

Federer, who had beaten Nadal in the two previous Wimbledon finals, lost the first two sets but managed to win two tiebreakers and force a fifth and final set. After three rain delays and 4 hours, 48 minutes -- Wimbledon's longest final on record, going back to 1877 -- Nadal won 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7 as darkness descended.

"I didn't think they were going to play that well, both of them," Borg told ESPN producer Aarthi Rajaraman several months ago. "That's the best tennis match I've ever seen in my life. I was just happy to be there, to be part of that final.

"You cannot see a better tennis match."

Sampras, who watched on television, agreed.

"The match," he said, "transcended the sport."

Almost unbearable drama

Paul Annacone, Sampras' longtime coach, watched the match at home in New York.

"I remember the light in Pete's eyes on Centre Court," Annacone said. "That's what I saw in their eyes. Phenomenal match, great drama, pretty incredible to watch.

"That's why they play."

From the time Nadal sprinted to the baseline after the ceremonial photographs at net, he came out firing. A forehand winner that caught the back of the line, the 14th and final stroke of the opening point, announced his intention to change the Centre Court dynamic. A break of Federer's serve in the third game of the first set and the ninth game of the second gave Nadal an imposing two-set lead.

"Roger seemed a little confused about when he should come in and stay back," Sampras observed. "When he came in, he was getting passed. Nadal's just a fighter, a mental animal."

And then, at 3-all in the third, Federer fell behind love-40 on his serve. Nadal, perhaps feeling the moment, squandered three break points. At game point for Federer, curiously, Nadal sent a second serve into the net. With Federer serving at 5-all, the long predicted rain began to fall.

Ivan Lendl, the eight-time Grand Slam champion, watched the match in Newport, R.I.

"When the rain delay came, I thought it was a good thing for Roger," Lendl said. "It gave him a chance to collect himself. At the same time, it gave Rafa a chance to think about things. Maybe too much time.

"I mean, Rafa was playing better than Roger, then all of a sudden, things turned around."

Federer hit four aces in the third-set tiebreaker and drew himself back into the match. The fourth-set tiebreaker, the match's undeniable fulcrum, was breathtaking. Serving big -- once his greatest weakness -- Nadal hit an ace and an unreturnable serve for a 4-1 lead. Tightening visibly, Nadal double-faulted, then sent an easy backhand into the net. His lead was down to 5-4, and two big serves for Federer made it 6-5. Nadal rallied to gain two match points, at 7-6 and 8-7, but Federer escaped with a service winner and a sensational backhand passing shot. A sweet Federer forehand and another Nadal double fault leveled the match.

Todd Martin, the retired ATP player, also watched on television.

"They're playing 85 feet from each other, and the way the sport is played today it's not a quick process to get to the culmination," Martin said. "It is a slow crescendo. They're both such amazing shot-makers that the slow crescendo results in a tremendous boom.

"From a tactical standpoint, maybe it wasn't the best match ever played, but from a viewing perspective it was incredibly compelling. On top of the beauty of the points and the nature of the athletics, there was great, almost unbearable drama."

At 7-all in the final set, Nadal broke Federer's serve when Federer sprayed a too-forceful forehand long. At love-15, Nadal served and volleyed for the first time in the entire match. Two successful volleys and a backhand off the frame by Federer led to a third match point. Federer, pulled wide, hit a backhand service winner to save himself again. Nadal's fourth match point was his last; Federer's short forehand fell into the net at 9:16 p.m. local, and tears were brimming in the Spaniard's eyes.

"I know exactly how he felt, winning that last point, yeah," Borg said. "Losing two finals before and beating Roger at Wimbledon -- that was a huge thing for Rafa."

Federer lost on grass for the first time in six years and saw a 40-match winning streak at Wimbledon end, just one short of Borg's record.

"If Roger had held to 8-all," Borg said, "I think they would have stopped the match, then everybody has to come back the next day. And that would have been a pity. It ended in a perfect thing, for Nadal anyway."

A sea change?

Nadal, who climbed into the Royal Box and accepted congratulations from Prince Felipe and Princess Letizia of Spain, called it the most emotional match of his career.

Federer, who converted only one of 13 break-point opportunities on Nadal's serve, called it his toughest loss.

"I mean, it's not much harder than this right now," Federer said afterward. "Probably later in life, I'll go, 'That was a great match.' Right now it's not much of a feel-good thing."

Borg traced the victory back to the 2007 Wimbledon final when Federer needed five sets and two tiebreakers to defeat the prodigy once seen as a clay-court specialist.

"Rafa had a few break points, and if he made those, he had a good chance to win the final," Borg said. "I thought that was the change. He surprised a lot of people in the world that he can play on grass."

Later that year, Borg talked with Federer when they played some exhibition matches in Asia.

"Roger remembers every single point," Borg said. "Of course, he was very disappointed, but still his main goal in the future -- he has to break Sampras' record of 14 Grand Slams."

At the time -- only a year ago -- that seemed like a daunting prospect.

ESPN.com, in its match report, observed:

"This victory, achieved on Federer's favored surface, on the court that means more to him than any other, appears to be a passing shot of sorts.

"For these sea-change moments are inevitable in sport.

"In tennis, the most recent passing-the-torch moment came here at Wimbledon. Instructively, Federer was on the other side of the exchange. Sampras had won four straight championships at the All England Club (1997 to 2000), and seven of eight overall. Federer, only 19, beat Sampras 7-5 in the fifth set of a fourth-round match, ending the champion's 31-match winning streak.

"Sampras never won here again."

Said Sampras, "Roger just felt really dejected.

"Nadal has that heart, he has that grit, that he willed his way to win at Wimbledon. He just willed it. And Roger just felt it slipping away."

Perhaps more than merely the match.

Instead of Federer's winning his 13th Grand Slam and closing the Sampras gap to one, Nadal seemed to have dramatically altered the trajectory of both their careers. After all, his fifth Grand Slam title came at an age when Federer had won only one.

"[Nadal] could go on to win 10, 12, 14 majors," Sampras said in March. "He really could. I think my record's going to be broken by Roger here in the next year or so, and then Nadal is going to be right behind him, just going for those Slams."

In retrospect, the 2008 Wimbledon final was a wake-up call for Federer. Yes, he lost to Nadal in a furious five-set final at the Australian Open and broke down afterward. Sure, he lost to Novak Djokovic in Miami and smashed his racket. But he won the French Open, beating Robin Soderling -- the man who knocked out Nadal in the fourth round -- in a commanding final.

Borg, like Sampras, saw the future back in March.

"He still has the ambition to win more titles, more Grand Slam tournaments," Borg said of Federer. "I think he will definitely come back and win more majors to beat Sampras' record."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.