LONDON -- This is why they play the game -- and why we love it:
The 17-time Grand Slam champion, approaching the end of his reign, charging forward, fiercely into the fifth and ultimate set against the most consistently excellent performer of this day.
Facing match point deep in the fourth, Roger Federer challenged the out call of his first serve. Through the miracle of replay, it became an ace against Novak Djokovic. It was at that point you suspected something extraordinary was in the making.
There were magnificent strokes, dramatic netcords and even, on break point against him, a serve-and-volley second serve with a gorgeous half-volley pickup from Federer that left the BBC commentators laughing at how absurdly sublime their play was.
In the final analysis -- in the final two games, really -- Djokovic's game simply looked five years younger than Federer's. When Federer's final fragile backhand found the net, Djokovic was a 6-7 (7), 6-4, 7-6 (4), 5-7, 6-4 Wimbledon winner.
After embracing Federer at the net, Djokovic fell to his knees, placed a pinch of the scorched grass in his mouth and savored the taste he has been hungering for every day of the past year.
The match, which clocked in at four minutes under four hours, was not merely an instant classic. It will endure.
Djokovic won his second Wimbledon title and reclaims the No. 1 ranking from Rafael Nadal. It was his seventh major championship, which puts him in some nice company, along with John McEnroe and Mats Wilander.
"He's a magnificent champion," Djokovic said of Federer in his on-court interview. "I respect your career and everything you have done.
"Thank you for letting me win today."
"I just kept going," Federer said. "I couldn't figure out why I wasn't breaking Novak's serve or actually creating opportunities. I kept believing and kept trying to play offensive tennis. I'm happy it paid off in some instances.
"Novak deserved it at the end clearly, but it was extremely close."
Federer has given us some spectacular stuff on Centre Court. The last five-set men's final, five years ago against Andy Roddick, ended in Federer victory at 16-14. Before Sunday, Federer had played eight finals at the All England Club and won seven. The only time he lost -- in 2008, to Nadal -- it ended at 9-7 and might have been the greatest match ever.
That's what it takes to beat Federer on Centre Court.
But that was six years ago, when Federer was still in his prime. A month shy of his 33rd birthday, he is not quite as spry these days. Opposite Djokovic, Federer was bidding to become the oldest Wimbledon champion of the Open era. Arthur Ashe was 31 when he won here in 1975.
The wildly supportive Centre Court crowd nearly willed him to it.
So for now -- and possibly forever -- there will be no record eighth title here. Federer, Pete Sampras and William Renshaw, circa the 1880s, remain tied with seven.
Credit Djokovic for his uncanny perseverance.
Following the legend of Sisyphus in Greek lore, Djokovic has rolled the great boulder to the very top of the mountain only to lose control and see it tumble back down. This was Djokovic's fourth Grand Slam final of the past five, and he had lost the previous three. A year ago at Wimbledon, after a draining semifinal, Djokovic lost meekly to Murray in straight sets. He fell in four sets to Nadal in the US Open final and, last month, at the French Open.
Clearly, something has been missing at the end of these majors. That was the chief reason Djokovic and his team hired three-time Wimbledon champion Boris Becker, who was a fiery fellow back in his day.
"At the end of the day," Becker said recently, "it's up to him and how he fights those inner demons."
He fought exceptionally well.
Afterward, Djokovic said it was the highest-quality major final he had ever played in, even better than the 2012 Australian Open final with Rafael Nadal.
"It was disappointing to lose the fourth set," Djokovic said. "They only way I could have won the match was by being mentally strong. I didn't let my emotions fade away, like they did at the French Open.
"I was able to defeat not only my opponent but myself."
Some things, apparently, never change. Federer's coach Stefan Edberg played Becker 35 times in their glorious 13-year rivalry -- and lost 25. Edberg, one of the great volleyers in history, has urged Federer to come forward more often, but Djokovic was more efficient, winning 26 of his 35 approaches.
Going in, there were a number of mitigating circumstances that suggested he had a chance. Djokovic, who has a history of fatigue deep in the majors, had spent more than four hours on the court in his previous six matches and, according to the statistical wizards, run three more miles. And while Federer advanced by seeming to hover over the charred grass of the baseline, Djokovic couldn't always keep his feet.
Though the two had met 34 times before, this one felt a little strange; it was the first Grand Slam final in nearly five years that didn't feature either Nadal or Murray. It was also the first time in nearly seven years that Federer and Djokovic met in a Grand Slam final.
Djokovic came out attacking Federer's one-handed backhand, but it held together nicely -- until the first-set tiebreaker. Federer raced out to a 4-2 lead, but three misfires on three consecutive backhands -- a leaning slice, one from the baseline and a service return -- and Djokovic suddenly had the advantage. Federer saved two set points with a forehand and a 123 mph ace then converted his first set point when Djokovic hit an oddly lackadaisical backhand into the net. It was sensational stuff, and it is worth noting that the 51-minute first set was only four minutes shorter than the entire women's final.
Federer weathered a spirited assault of his first service game of the second set but succumbed in the second. He forced things by following a less-than-stellar approach shot to net and leaned the wrong way as Djokovic stroked a magnificent backhand cross-court winner. It was only the second time in 98 service games here that Federer had been broken.
When Federer got his first break-point opportunity -- more than 90 minutes into the match -- Djokovic responded with a 119 mph body serve that hit the back line of the box and forced Federer to hit a wide forehand. At deuce, the Serb ripped a 125 mph ace down the middle. On set point, he outmaneuvered Federer and his second overhead found the open court.
Federer was broken in the fourth game of the fourth set but stirred up the crowd -- and himself -- when he broke Djokovic right back. And then Djokovic broke him, fatally, again for a 5-2 lead. Or so it appeared.
But Federer ran off in a championship flurry and won the last five games of the set. And the match was level.
There were some scattered whispers that this might be Federer's farewell performance at Wimbledon, but he quashed those at the end of his on-court interview when he told the fans, "See you next year."
Later, Federer said nothing was guaranteed.
"You could have asked me the same thing in 2003," Federer said, referring to his first Wimbledon title. "You don't know. Totally the unknown.
"I'm very happy to see that with feeling normal I can produce a performance like I did the last two weeks. That clearly makes me believe that this was just a steppingstone to many more great things in the future."
Said Djokovic, "In the important moments, he come up with his best shots. After dropping a fourth set, it wasn't easy to regroup.
"This is the tournament that I always dreamed of winning. This is the first tennis match that I ever [saw] in my life, when I was 5 years old. That image stuck in my mind. I'm so grateful for this opportunity and to hold this trophy."