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Sunday, July 6, 2008
Nadal-Federer epic the most thrilling of all the Wimbledon finals

By Ravi Ubha
Special to ESPN.com

Sunday's Wimbledon final was one of those times when you call a buddy immediately after the match ends and say, "Did you see that?"

Hope so.

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer battled for nearly five hours, braving the conditions and each other, before the Spaniard finally ended the Swiss's reign at the All England Club. John McEnroe, a three-time Wimbledon champ, proclaimed it was the best tennis tussle he had ever seen.

Fitting, then, that we unveil the top five most memorable Wimbledon finals in the Open era. The most recent one leads the way.

1. Rafael Nadal versus Roger Federer, 2008. Nadal wins 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7

Rafael Nadal
He needed four match points, but Rafael Nadal finally ended the longest men's final in Wimbledon history.
Before we talk about the actual tennis, let's throw some intangibles in there. The match began 20 minutes late due to rain and two more interruptions ensued -- one arguably helping Federer and the other favoring Nadal. Had they been on court much longer, surely bad light would have sent a third interruption for Monday.

In any case, at 4 hours, 48 minutes, it turned out to be the longest men's singles final in Wimbledon history.

The two gladiators delivered a combined 149 winners, almost double the unforced error tally, and Federer served huge when he needed to, especially in the third and fourth sets, and early in the fifth.

Nadal, though, proved how tough he is mentally. Blowing two match points in the fourth-set tiebreaker surely would have sent others downhill, but the Spaniard persevered and was impregnable on his own serve in the fifth, facing just one break point.

He held serve from early in the second set onward.

Nadal ended Federer's five-year hold on the trophy and his 65-match winning streak on grass. He probably silenced detractors, too, finally claiming a major on a surface other than clay.

"Probably later on in life, I'll go, 'That was a great match,' '' Federer said.

And he would be right.

2. Bjorn Borg versus John McEnroe, 1980. Borg wins 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16), 8-6

Getting over two match points is one thing, but recovering to win after squandering five in a tiebreaker -- perhaps the greatest in Wimbledon history -- is quite another.

Bjorg Borg, the stoic and super-fit Swede, achieved the feat in 1980, downing brash upstart John McEnroe. Chasing a fifth consecutive Wimbledon crown, Borg held set points on five separate occasions in the fourth-set 'breaker before McEnroe converted on his eighth set point to make it 18-16 and send the tussle to a fifth. To make matters worse, Borg held two match points earlier in the fourth.

The tiebreaker lasted 22 minutes and Borg would later admit he thought he had no chance of taking the fifth set.

"I have never been so disappointed on a tennis court as when I lost that fourth set,'' Borg said afterwards. "Seven match points and I failed to do it. Every time I had another match point, John came up with a great shot.''

Borg kept it together in the fifth, only dropping one point in his final six service games. McEnroe gained his revenge by beating Borg in 1981, bringing to an end his reign at the All England Club.

3. Goran Ivanisevic versus Patrick Rafter, 2001. Ivanisevic wins 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 2-6, 9-7

Rain played havoc with Wimbledon seven years ago -- should we say, more so than usual? -- and it ultimately led to one of the most memorable occasions in Grand Slam history. The men's final began on a Monday due to the precipitation, the first time that happened at Wimbledon since 1922. As a result, 10,000 tickets went on sale 2 hours prior to the match, meaning a younger, more boisterous crowd was in attendance. And who to root for, the popular Ivanisevic, or, uh, popular Rafter?

Ivanisevic prevailed in what turned out to be the longest fifth set of a men's singles final at Wimbledon, in terms of games, at the time. In the process, he became the first men's wild card to capture a major.

Getting there was the fun part.

Ivanisevic, ranked outside the top 100 and a loser in three previous Wimbledon finals, cried, kissed the ball and jolted his left -- and serving -- arm as he tried to serve out the encounter. A service winner finally did the trick and Ivanisevic could hardly believe his Wimbledon misery was over.

"I think I'm dreaming,'' Ivanisevic said at the time. "Somebody is going to wake me up and tell me, 'Man, you didn't win.' ''

4. Venus Williams versus Lindsay Davenport, 2005. Williams wins 4-6, 7-6 (4), 9-7

Venus Williams
Venus Williams has five Wimbledon trophies, but her marathon final versus Lindsay Davenport will go down as the most memorable.
The elder of the tennis playing sisters became the first ladies finalist at Wimbledon to save a match point, then go on to win, since Helen Wills Moody in 1935. Staring at defeat at 4-5, 30-40 in the third set, Venus Williams crunched a backhand that left Lindsay Davenport, who hasn't claimed a major since 2000, with no answer.

Williams had to rally once more in the third, trailing 2-4, and the two-hour, 45-minute thriller was the longest Wimbledon women's final in history.

Adding to the drama, Davenport carried on despite struggling with a back injury that surfaced in the deciding set.

"Every time the chips were down for Venus, she played unbelievably,'' Davenport said.

5. Steffi Graf versus Gabriela Sabatini, 1991. Graf wins 6-4, 3-6, 8-6

Graf had something to prove, coming off a humiliating 6-0, 6-2 loss to Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in the semifinal of the French Open weeks earlier and not winning a Grand Slam since the 1990 Australian Open, an age for her.

The final wasn't pretty -- Graf and fan favorite Sabatini were broken a combined 12 times in the second and third sets. However, there was plenty of drama.

Sabatini, who claimed her lone Grand Slam title by downing Graf at the U.S. Open 10 months earlier, turned things around by moving forward.

Twice she failed to serve out the encounter deep in the third set: At 6-5, 30-all, Sabatini hit a backhand volley that looked like a winner, but Graf chased it down and sent a winning reply, then broke and didn't lose another game.

It was the third of Graf's seven Wimbledon titles.

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.