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Not merely tennis, this was a match made in heaven

Almost always, tennis is a niche sport, something watched by the general public if the garbage has been taken out and the ironing is done.

Then, every so often, there comes a perfect storm. It happened Sunday, in the cathedral of the sport, Centre Court at Wimbledon, when typhoon Roger Federer met cyclone Rafael Nadal.

Even for those who don’t know a backhand from a backbite, what transpired was mesmerizing.

That Nadal beat Federer for the men’s singles title was only part of the story. So were all the statistics, including the end of Federer’s five-year reign as champion, the end of his 65-match win streak on grass, the end of his winning streak at Wimbledon at 40 matches.

Even the final score, the 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7 that looked to the layman more like an algebra equation than a sports result, could only hint at what really took place.

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This was athletic competition on the highest level. And nothing else. Two of the greatest tennis players ever, not to mention athletes, competed against each other for nearly five hours and the story was as much what didn’t happen as what did.

Nobody got hurt.

Nadal, who gave Spain its first Wimbledon men’s title since 1966, tweaked a knee early in the match, shrugged it off and kept whacking shots at Federer. This was six hours of Tiger Woods in the U.S. Open, minus the limp.

Nobody wimped out, backed down, made excuses, took potty breaks, tried gamesmanship, yelled at the umpire, blamed the camera that calls the lines or whimpered about the three rain delays. They just played, hitting shots like we may never see again, under pressure neither may ever feel again, with stakes the highest they play for in this sport.

And when it was over, when the greatest forehand in the history of the game let Federer down on match point and settled into the net, the five-time king praised the new kid on the throne as a worthy champion and the new kid was properly deferential to the replaced royalty.

Which is not only refreshing, in this era of me-only sports stars and Egos-R-Us pro athletes, but it is how it ought to be.

Think of all the events you have watched recently and try to remember when you saw this great a competition in sports and this much great sportsmanship.

The former antithesis of such things, now-grown-up broadcaster John McEnroe, led us through the match with his credible appreciation of the greatness he was witnessing. He used the word “unbelievable” at least a dozen times, and for once, that did not seem to be overdone hyperbole.

He should know about unbelievable matches. He was on the short end of one in the 1980 Wimbledon final, when Bjorn Borg beat him, 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16), 8-6. Now, after Nadal-Federer, McEnroe-Borg 1980 seems to have quickly acquired status as “the second-greatest tennis match ever played.”

Even those with both a great knowledge of the sport and a stake in the outcome could not resist the exclamation points.

Pete Sampras watched from his home in Beverly Hills and called the match “absolutely terrific. One of the best tennis matches I’ve ever seen.”

Sampras should know. Several of his rank in the top 10 of all time.

He holds the record for most major tennis titles -- Australian, French, Wimbledon and U.S. Open -- with 14. It is an achievement that brings with it a mathematical argument that he was tennis’ greatest tennis player.

Sampras won the last of his 14 majors at the U.S. Open in 2002, retired and soon watched in amazement as Federer took over the sport. When Federer’s U.S. Open victory in 2007 brought him his 12th major title, Sampras shrugged along with the rest of the tennis world at the inevitability of his 14 titles being surpassed.

Now, even with Federer without a major title this year and, at age 26, stuck on that No. 12, Sampras knows that his record probably won’t last and doesn’t even seem to mind.

“The Federer-Nadal rivalry has transcended the sport,” he said Sunday. “It’s amazing how they have done it. With the match today, they separated themselves even further from the rest of the players. With this match, they have brought so much more to the sport.”

Things we will take from this will be engraved on our mental lens caps:

* Federer coolly sending impossible passing shots past a full-stretched Nadal. Nadal returning the favor moments later.

* Nadal, flat on his back in disbelieving celebration moments after match point. Federer, the loser, doing the unusual by making the rounds of the court for fans and photographers, and everybody agreeing he more than deserved the moment.

* Nadal and Federer, in their chairs at courtside, moments after the ending, looking like neither had another ounce to give.

There won’t be a center stage like this for tennis until September, when the fourth major is played in New York City, the U.S. Open. Tennis is part of the Olympics too, but remains a sideshow to runners and swimmers and gymnasts.

But what Federer and Nadal did for their sport Sunday won’t have to wait that long to be measured.

It will be manifested in inspired middle-aged men and women, digging through the closet for that old knee brace. Or athletic, flexible 16-year-olds, skipping the hoops pickup game down the street to hit a few from the baseline at the park.

It doesn’t happen often, but it was a day when tennis stormed into the mainstream on the wings of two incredible players, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

If tennis is lucky, the stuff that blew in may just stick around for a while.

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Bill Dwyre can be reached at bill.dwyre@latimes.com. For previous columns, go to latimes.com/dwyre.


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