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Federer-Nadal a rivalry as good as it gets

WIMBLEDON, England - They'll talk about the 2008 Wimbledon men's final for years. Or at least until Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal top themselves.

Which, theoretically, could happen in about two months in the U.S. Open final.

Rafa vs. Roger just keeps getting better and better - the sort of special rivalry that could lift their sport to heights it hasn't seen in quite some time. Federer is 26, Nadal is 22, and they're seemingly forever locked into the No. 1 and 2 spots in the rankings, meaning they'll be on opposite halves of tournament draws for the foreseeable future.

Forget about Borg-McEnroe or McEnroe-Connors or Becker-Edberg or Sampras-Agassi.

None of those duos, or any pair of men in the 40-year Open era, faced off in as many as six Grand Slam finals, as Federer and Nadal already have done.

None of those duos ever produced a 4-hour, 48-minute Wimbledon final, as new champion Nadal and Federer did Sunday, a 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7 classic filled with as many thrills and chills, twists and turns as any match ever played.

'Probably later on in life, you know, I'll go, 'That was a great match,' Federer said. 'But right now, it's not much of a - how do you say? - a feel-good thing.'

No Wimbledon men's final ever lasted longer - that says plenty, when you consider this tournament has been contested since 1877 - and this one finished at nightfall, with camera flashes providing the only traces of light as Nadal carefully lifted the golden trophy overhead.

Britain's Daily Mail newspaper ran a front-page photo of Nadal on Monday, with the headline: 'After five epic hours of truly agonising drama, Nadal wins the greatest final ever.'

Who could argue with that assessment?

Even a day later, any hyperbole used to describe the match felt well-suited. Both because of what was at stake - Federer came within two points of becoming the first man since the 1880s to win six Wimbledon titles in a row; Nadal succeeded in becoming the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to win the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year - and the breathtakingly high-quality tennis on display.

Both men were brilliant, from the opening, 14-stroke point that Nadal ended with a forehand winner down the line; to the 15-stroke exchange in the second set's eighth game, in which Nadal ran from one sideline to the other with his back to the net and whipped around at the last second to hit a forehand across his body, only to then lose the point a second later with a drop shot into the net; to the four aces Federer used to take the third-set tiebreaker; to the on-his-heels backhand passing winner Nadal hit to open the fourth set's third game; to the running cross-court passing winner Federer hit on the very next point; to the 127 mph service winner right on a corner and the down-the-line backhand passing winner Federer used to erase match points in the fourth-set tiebreaker.

And on and on it went, drawing the highest TV ratings since 1991 for a Wimbledon men's final not involving an American.

Part of the reason the men's final was so much more compelling than the all-Williams women's final a day before, in which Venus beat younger sister Serena in straight sets for her fifth Wimbledon title, is that fans find it easier to take sides when it comes to Federer and Nadal.

The Williams sisters are among the top players in history, too, but their styles of play are so similar, and no matter which one wins, the trophy is heading to the same family.

Federer and Nadal have such contrasting games and personalities - right down to the cream cardigan favored by one, and the sleeveless muscle T favored by the other - that spectators tend to gravitate.

That's why there were all of those raucous, group chants of 'Ro-ger!' and 'Ra-fa!' ringing through genteel Centre Court during the latter stages Sunday.

'I'm happy we lived up to the expectations,' Federer said. 'I'm happy the way I fought. That's all I could really do.'

In the end, he was left to contemplate his first loss at Wimbledon - or on a grass-court anywhere - since 2002. Federer had won 40 consecutive matches at the All England Club, and a record 65 in a row on grass, but Nadal figured out a way to be better, barely, on this day.

The defeat was a blow to Federer's bid to catch Pete Sampras, both for career Wimbledon championships (Federer has five, Sampras finished with seven) and career Grand Slam titles (Federer has 12, Sampras 14).

The match also was a conversation-changer when it comes to assessing the careers of Federer and Nadal.

After all, can Federer really lay claim to being the greatest player ever if he isn't necessarily the greatest player of his own era? Nadal leads their head-to-head series 12-6, including 10-4 in tournament finals, 4-2 in Grand Slam finals.