WIMBLEDON, England -- The end of a Grand Slam event always has this sad, goodbye feel -- workers wheeling crates, once-clattering rooms deserted, mounds of paper waiting for the cleaning crew -- but Sunday night at the All England Club was like a circus tent deflating. Two weeks of rain, botched predictions and national angst had left everyone hollow-eyed. Only the Happy Warrior seemed eager to keep going.
"Guys, no more," his agent, Tony Godsick, said as Roger Federer, after a TV interview, sat signing autographs for the crew. But a man kept handing him paper to sign, and Federer scribbled on. Godsick threw up his hands. "Okay: How about ten more?" he said. Three hours had passed since Federer's historic and redemptive win over a gutted Andy Murray, 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4, in the 2012 Wimbledon final, and the champion still had four TV studios to visit, with autographs to sign, more pictures to pose for, more congratulations to accept.
"And then the Wimbledon Ball...." Godsick said.
Federer grinned. "Dancing with Serena, baby!" he said.
Yes: You'd be happy, too, if, with just one win, you could collect a seventh Wimbledon title to equal the record of your idol, Pete Sampras, return to No. 1 and tie Sampras' record there of 286 weeks -- and, just a month shy of 31, end a 2 1/2-year major title drought to quiet all those who declared you done. But the fact is, no tennis great has ever worn the crown more easily, nor endured for so long the tour's ravaging toll with less wear.
"It's like I'm on the court with a 22-year old kid," said Federer's coach, Paul Annacone, who worked with Sampras before he retired at 31. "When you have that, it's more fun to be around -- and it makes his fuel tank much more full than most people his age. Because he enjoys it.
"Roger's much more in the middle of his career at almost 31 than Pete was at 31. He loves the life; his life is the road. He loves tennis, he loves who he's become. Pete at that age was a little bit tired and had achieved what he wanted. It's kind of an endless youth."
Winning can, of course, make anyone look young. But Annacone has been singing this tune since he started working with Federer in July 2010, and kept it up even as Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic passed him in the rankings and big matches kept slipping away. A year ago in the Wimbledon quarterfinals, Federer squandered a two-sets-to-none lead to lose to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Then, in the semifinals of the 2011 U.S. Open, Federer was serving at 5-3 in the fifth with two match points when Djokovic stunned him with a blistering forehand to stay alive. Federer went on to lose and then snappishly dismiss Djokovic's daring, seemingly oblivious to his own decline.
But, in fact, Federer said, walking down the hall of the Wimbledon broadcast center Sunday, that loss led him to question himself like few others. "In the moment itself? It's terrible," he said. "Oh my, God: Are you kidding me? That was tough, because you think you actually did everything right, you shouldn't be now explaining the loss. You should be preparing for the finals. But you automatically have to do it somehow, and I had six weeks to digest it and think about it.
"But I see it the way I hope Andy sees it as well, with this victory: That it's the beginning of something, not just the end of something. Fortunately I'm very positive in the way I do think and believe and understand the situation. I never stopped believing."
It showed Sunday. Plenty of Englishmen yelled, "We love you, Roger", when play began on Centre Court, but with all Great Britain urging him to become their first Wimbledon titlist in 76 years, Murray seemed more than ready to make his name. He broke Federer to open the match, showed no nerves in winning the first set. The sun shined, Federer's serve seemed vulnerable, and the two men were playing perfectly even when Federer held serve to take a 6-5 lead in the second. And then, over the lip of the stadium, a black cloud hove into view.
The wind began to swirl, and London weather, British dread and all the nation's failed tennis ghosts began to rise. With Murray serving at 30-all, Federer ended a 17-stroke rally at the net, with a sliced drop-volley that hit the place like a time-capsule from 2006; a lunging Murray sent his lob just long. Now it was break point, with an even longer exchange ending the same way: Federer at net, slicing another untouchably soft backhand volley. Suddenly, he looked ten years younger.
"Those two points he played were absolutely ridiculous," said former British No. 1 Greg Rusedski. "Two of the best points I've ever seen in my life."
Then, naturally, with Federer leading at 1-1, 40-0 in the third, came the rain. Wimbledon's powers-that-be decided to close its $150 million roof for the first time ever during a men's final, which may well have saved the match for Sunday's telecasts but doomed Murray for good. Federer, one of the two best grass court players ever, hadn't lost indoors since 2010. When the players returned after a 40-minute break, raindrops pelted the white shield above: Fred Perry knocking. With no glare or gusts to disturb him, Federer began to glide, a legend under glass.
"You knew, from over the years, that at any stage Federer could just put it into a gear that no one could live with," said former British No. 1 John Lloyd. "And Murray couldn't live with him."
He tried. The two exchanged blows and break points and game points -- ten deuces in all -- in an epic 20-minute game with Murray serving at 2-3 in the third, but his seams were beginning to show. While Federer danced alone in his personal ballroom, Murray spent the game falling twice, grabbing his crotch, panting and snarling, and after all that sent a backhand long to be broken. Just before Murray cracked another forehand out to send Federer up, 5-2, a voice rang out: "Come on, Andy, enough of the gallant loser! Win it for Britain...."
But it was over. Afterward, Murray, who hadn't won a set in his previous three major finals, croaked, "I'm getting closer!", then sobbed endearingly on court. "I've been there," said Federer, who sobbed himself after losing to Nadal at the '09 Australian Open. He tried to comfort Murray, in between his own tears. Federer stared up at his box: His twin daughters, Myla and Charlene, three this month, were watching daddy lift the sport's most prized trophy for the first time.
"It's not just a great moment in my career, but life," Federer said. "As a parent and a father, it's quite incredible."
And it wasn't as easy as it looked. Intent on playing more aggressively, Federer had also beefed up his schedule in the quest to return to No. 1; despite losses this year to Nadal in Melbourne and Djokovic in Paris, he'd had enough tour wins the last six months to feel he was near a major breakthrough. At Wimbledon he became unusually dialed in: After surviving an achy back and a five-set hiccup against Julien Benneteau in the third round here, he hit a wondrous serving stride and began to roll, avoiding any talk of history and records.
"There was so much on the line that I tried to block out so badly," Federer told his BBC interviewer. "Because I did lose a couple of really difficult matches in the last year and a half I just tried to focus point to point. It's terrible to think that way, but then when it all happens, it crashes down on you and you're exhausted and happy."
Then he stood up, signed autographs, headed down to the next studio. A loser to Djokovic in six of their previous seven matches, Federer met him here in the semis and crushed him in four. It wasn't, he insists, personal. "It's part of the whole process and improving more," Federer said. That stuff doesn't fuel me -- having to beat him again and proving it to the world. I don't see it that way at all."
Finally he left the broadcast center, and stepped outside into the rain. Centre Court loomed a few hundred feet away. Federer's sneakers squished on the slick tiles; workers hauling equipment stood aside to stare. This Wimbledon gives him 17 majors in all, six more than his archrival, Nadal: A nice cushion in the great race the two run but rarely admit. On Sunday, Federer just might have put the greatest-of-all-time title out of reach for good.
"Do I care?" he said. "I guess I do, because I'd be lying if told you I don't care at all. But for me it's the same thing as the Novak loss and trying to beat him. Rafa has an amazing career, we have two such separate lives and worlds and things we do and the way we do them. He'll anyway be a legend and a great champion, so for me if he does beat my record it almost doesn't matter. Because I did things he can never do. He did things that I can never do. It's the moments that live and the memories that are with me that are most important."
Still, he was asked, it's nice to widen the gap?
"Yeah," Federer said, smiling. "If you like."