It took precisely 60 minutes to stretch to near breaking point the sinews of genius that have connected Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for seven memorable years at the summit of their calling. The match lasted all of 61.
The Swiss's lop-sided win in the round-robin stage of the ATP World Tour Finals not only allowed the 17,500 fans in the O2 Arena ample time to drain away from Greenwich in good time on London's underground system but left tennis with an awkward question: is one of the great rivalries in the history of sport dying a quiet death?Neither winner nor loser - meeting for the first time when neither has been ranked No. 1 in the world - would accept such a premise. They love their fight.
But Federer beat Nadal with embarrassing ease, 6-3, 6-0 in the quickest contest of the tournament, and is two wins away from a record sixth trophy here; Nadal, clearly out of sorts after a five-week sabbatical from the tour, is one defeat removed from going home to prepare for the Davis Cup final in Seville.
Federer, understandably, could not disguise his pleasure in reversing the humiliation Nadal laid on him in Paris three years ago. Nadal was monumentally gracious in defeat: "When he plays like that on this surface, I have to accept that he's a better player than me." He revealed, after prompting, a shoulder problem prevented his practising the day before but said he was "perfect" on the night. Tennis is blessed to have such an honest warrior.
Nevertheless, while titles pile up like Christmas sweaters for players of such wondrous gifts, this match might have been pivotal for both of them. Since 2004 they shared supremacy, the Swiss first, the Spaniard latterly.
Adjusting to the rise of Novak Djokovic over the past year, they have struggled in different ways to reinvent themselves. Federer brought the coaching guru Paul Annacone on board last year and has supplemented an already impressive bank of guile with drop shots, variety and muscle. Nadal worked on his serve and improved his backhand.Yet all the tinkering in the world could not disguise the gulf between them. Each of these tennis gods has handed out thrashings to the other since the Spaniard scored the first of his 17 wins in Miami in 2004, but Federer, now with nine wins against Nadal, defied the years and the doubters with a beating of imperious skill.
He bullied him, like a ballet dancer might embarrass a street-corner shuffler. Nadal did not lack for grit but there was a deficit of imagination. Nadal still leads Federer 17 matches to nine but he trails him 16 slams to 10. At the final reckoning, the latter score will be the defining one. As it stands, Nadal, still only 25 but suspicious of knees, has to rediscover his zest.