I watched the Wimbledon men’s singles championship match on Sunday between Andy Roddick and Roger Federer. For the third straight year at Wimbledon the match went five sets, and the fifth set went 30 games, record and a match in itself. More than once during the match I found myself muttering to myself “unbelievable.”

Federer never looked confident during the match, even after he won tie breaks in sets two and three to go ahead two sets to one. Roddick brought his A-game with him, winning the first set. He won points not only on his booming serve but with backhand shots down the line. Even though Roger scored a record 50 aces, it was Andy’s serve that seemed dominant; and Roger didn’t break that serve until the very end.

Would there ever be an end? The match lasted four hours and 16 minutes. In the epic fifth set, Roger won a game and Andy answered back. I thought that as the fifth set progressed, the advantage went to Roddick, who looked untiring, unswerving, unrelenting. Uncharacteristically, Roger hit a number of moon balls in response to Roddick’s accuracy and power.

It was easy to think I was watching two tennis robots playing that fifth set, the way it developed, with neither man breaking the other—back and forth, back and fourth. But even if they were two robots playing under the English sun, one had to finally break down, miss a stroke, blink.

In last year’s Wimbledon final, played into near darkness, which John McEnroe called the greatest tennis match he had ever seen, Nadal crushed Federer in the fifth set, and brought tears from the Swiss legend. A gut string seemed to break inside him. After besting Feder on clay at the French, Nadal’s acknowledged strong surface, he had the gall to beat him on grass, where Federed had previously prevailed. Nadal beat him a third time in the ‘09 Australian Open. Many tennis buffs wondered in Federer would recover from those losses and ever win a major against the up and coming Spaniard.

It would not have been easy for Roger to quit his quest to better Pete Sampras’s record of 14 Grand Slam titles. Sampras and other tennis legends where in attendance at this historic match. But how many more times could he face losing to the younger Nadal, who had not become such a nemesis?

As fate would have it, Nadal suffered knee injuries that kept him out of Wimbledon after losing at the French Open. That didn’t make it any easier for Federer today at Wimbledon. Roger, as always, acknowledged the prowess of his opponent, who he wished well in future matches, called the whole thing “crazy,” and said “my head is still spinning.”

Roger Federer is not always the most articulate of men in describing his thoughts and feelings after a match. He sprinkles his conversation with too many “you knows.” But he is always a gentleman in the way he comports himself on the court. He tells you how it feels to lose, and he is not shy is telling you that his play was “great” when he wins. He dresses like a gentleman, even a dandy, with his special Wimbledon cream jacket trimmed with gold.

In a sport that has yielded points to the rougher aspects of contemporary competition, Roger plays the old school gentleman. He doesn’t grunt, throw his racket, pump his fists. He is not physically imposing; he almost looks frail. Calmly he pushes back his locks between points. He certainly shows emotion, as a gentleman should on occasion. He plays hard through the entire match, even through games he knows he will lose, keeping his composure and ability to bounce back, waiting for his opponent to crack, as finally happened today.

If there is a lesson in today’s victory at Wimbledon, it is that a great champion knows how to hang in there and seize the moment when it comes. Federer may look like a dandy, but he pounces like a tiger. Seeing an event like that made me glad to be alive, to know that excellence of that high order lives in an age of so much incompetence. It made me feel that I can win again. It made me feel really good. That is what I mean by the Federer Effect.

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