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WIMBLEDON, England (AP) — A Grand Slam title drought did indeed end in Sunday's historic and riveting Wimbledon final, only it was Roger Federer's lengthy-for-him gap between trophies that came to a close, rather than Britain's 76-year wait for a homegrown men's champion.
Making sure everyone knows he is still as capable as ever of brilliance on a tennis court — particularly one made of grass, and with a roof overhead — Federer came back to beat Andy Murray 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 indoors on Centre Court for a record-tying seventh championship at the All England Club.
"It feels nice," Federer said, clutching the gold trophy only Pete Sampras has held as many times in the modern era. "It's like it never left me."
The victory also increased Federer's record total to 17 major titles after being stuck on No. 16 for 2½ years, and clinched a return to the top of the ATP rankings, overtaking Novak Djokovic, after an absence of a little more than two years. Federer's 286th week at No. 1 ties Sampras for the most in history.
"He doesn't want to stop now. He knows he's going to continue to play well and try to break seven, and he could very well end up with eight or nine Wimbledons," Sampras said in a telephone interview. "I just think he's that much better than the other guys on grass, and he loves the court the way I loved that court. He's a great champion, a classy champion, and I'm really happy for him."
After a record seven consecutive Wimbledon finals from 2003-09, winning the first six, Federer lost in the quarterfinals in 2010 and 2011, then wasted two match points and a two-set lead against Djokovic in the U.S. Open semifinals last year, raising questions about whether he might be slipping.
"A couple tough moments for me the last couple years, I guess," Federer said. "So I really almost didn't try to picture myself with the trophy or try to think too far ahead, really."
After losing in the semifinals each of the previous three years, Murray was the first British man to reach the final at Wimbledon since Bunny Austin in 1938, and was trying to become the hosts' first male title winner since Fred Perry in 1936.
Alas, Murray dropped to 0-4 in Grand Slam finals, three against Federer. Only one other man lost the first four major title matches of his career: Ivan Lendl, who is coaching Murray now and sat in his guest box with chin planted on left palm, as expressionless as he was during his playing career. While Lendl never did win Wimbledon, perhaps Murray can take solace from knowing his coach did end up with eight Grand Slam titles.
"I'm getting closer," Murray told the crowd afterward, his voice cracking and tears flowing.
"Everybody always talks about the pressure of playing at Wimbledon, how tough it is," he said. "It's not the people watching; they make it so much easier to play. The support has been incredible, so thank you."
The Scotland native was urged on by 15,000 or so of his closest friends in person, along with thousands more watching on a large video screen a short walk away across the ground — not to mention the millions watching the broadcast on the BBC.
The afternoon's first roar from those in attendance came when Murray jogged to the baseline for the prematch warmup; there even were cheers when his first practice stroke clipped the top of the net and went over.
Any omen would do.
The British, tennis enthusiasts and otherwise, searched for signs everywhere. Murray turned 25 in May, just as Perry had turned 25 in May 1934, shortly before he won his first of three consecutive Wimbledon titles; 2012 is Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee, celebrating her 60-year reign, just as 1977, when Virginia Wade won the Wimbledon women's championship, was the Silver Jubilee, marking 25 years on the throne; on Saturday night, Jonathan Marray (paired with Frederik Nielsen of Denmark) became the first Brit to win a men's doubles title at Wimbledon since — yes, that's right — 1936.
Royalty — real and of a celebrity nature — began arriving more than a half-hour beforehand: Prince William's wife, Kate, and her sister, Pippa Middleton; British Prime Minister David Cameron; soccer star David Beckham and his wife, former Spice Girl Victoria. Also present in the Royal Box: Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, who wants Scotland to break away from Britain.
Early on, every point Murray won earned cheers as though the ultimate outcome had been decided. Every miss, even a first-serve fault, drew moans of "Awwwwwww," as though their lad had lost any chance.
Murray got off to a glorious start. Federer, appearing in his 24th Grand Slam final, appeared the tenser of the two, amazingly enough, and when he sailed a swinging forehand volley long to get broken in the opening game, spectators rose to their feet and waved their Scottish and Union Jack flags.
That said, they do appreciate greatness here, and so Federer's best offerings drew applause, too. There was plenty of clapping and yelling to go around for both men, who produced extremely high-quality play, filled with lengthy exchanges, superb shotmaking and deft volleying — all befitting the setting and the stakes.
Murray's second break helped him take the opening set, and things were even as could be for much of the second, until deuce at 5-5. From there, Federer stepped up, in large part by winning 43 of the 57 points on his serve the rest of the way. He saved all five break points he faced after the first set.
After holding for 6-5 in the second, Federer broke. At 30-all, he won a 17-stroke point with a drop volley that Murray got to but sailed a lob attempt long. And then Federer carved — caressed, really — another drop volley, this one bouncing to the side after it landed for a winner, impossible to reach, closing a 20-stroke exchange.
"Roger did a good job in the second set, turning the momentum around, and really changing things a lot," said his coach, Paul Annacone, who also worked with Sampras.
A real key switch happened at 1-all in the third, when a drizzle transformed into heavy showers, causing a 40-minute delay while the retractable cover was moved over the court. The roof was installed before the 2009 tournament; this was its first use for a singles final.
Until then, Federer had won 86 points, Murray 85. Under the roof — with no wind to alter trajectories, allowing the third-seeded Swiss star to make pure, explosive contact with the ball — Federer won 65 points, Murray 52.
"The way the court plays is a bit different," the fourth-seeded Murray said. "I think he served very well when the roof closed. He served better."
The most monumental game, though, came with Murray serving and trailing 3-2 in the third. It was chock-full: 10 deuces, six break points for Federer, three falls to the turf by Murray, all spread over roughly 20 gloriously intense minutes.
Murray went up 40-love, then began to crack as Federer walloped two backhand returns to 40-30. On the next point, Federer conjured up another beautiful drop shot and Murray tumbled head-over-heels while giving chase; both Federer and the chair umpire went over to check on him. A few points later, Murray did a somersault at the baseline when he slipped going after a lob. And on it went. At the 10th deuce, Federer sent another lob over Murray, who hit the deck yet again, but got up in time to see the ball plop on the baseline. This set up Federer's sixth break point, the last he would need — in the game and the set, certainly, but also in the match and the tournament, it seemed.
He converted it with an inside-out forehand that landed in a corner, and Murray could only push his reply into the net.
There would be no more shifts of control, no reasons for Federer to doubt — or for Murray and his legion of backers to believe.
The final break for Federer made it 3-2 in the fourth, when he flicked a cross-court backhand passing winner that was powerful and perfect. Federer made a rare show of strong emotion, shaking his right fist and bellowing. That, essentially, was that, no matter how many times the fans were going to sing their choruses of "An-dy! An-dy!" and "Mur-ray! Mur-ray!"
Federer only needed to hold serve three more times, and he did, then crumbled to the court when Murray sailed one last forehand wide.
"This is, I guess, how you want to win Wimbledon — by going after your shots, believing you can do it," Federer said, "and that's what I was able to do today."
He most definitely is back to being the best at what he does.
Federer turns 31 on Aug. 8, and is the first thirtysomething man to win Wimbledon since Arthur Ashe in 1975.
No matter. He and Sampras — and, by now, plenty of others — see no reason why Federer can't keep adding to all of his records.
"I'm so happy I'm at the age I am right now, because I had such a great run and I know there's still more possible. To enjoy it right now, it's very different than when I was 20 or 25," said Federer, whose twin daughters, wearing matching black-and-white dresses and frilly socks, applauded from his guest box during the trophy ceremony.
"I'm at a much more stable place in my life. I wouldn't want anything to change," he added. "So this is very, very special right now."
Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich