Yes, it was a five-setter. Yes, you could not have guessed which way it was going to go. Yes, it was among the most epic chapters in this rivalry. Yes, it was a final that we needed, a final that we deserved!
It was like watching David Gilmour and Roger Waters join forces for a dream Pink Floyd reunion in 2017. And as Roger Federer’s blasting forehand eluded his nemesis Rafael Nadal under the lights at Melbourne’s Rod Laver arena on Sunday, it felt like they dropped a brand new album to add to their glorious past.
The Swiss, written off by many as a man well past his prime, produced arguably his best performance against the Spaniard at a major and took home his 18th grand slam title 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3. It was his first grand slam win since the 2012 Wimbledon and his fifth Australian Open title.
There could only have been one winner on the court, but the real winners this time were the fans, who were treated with a brand of tennis that only these two could have produced.
The 5-set saga
It had always been either Roger or Rafa, but this time the satisfying feeling to watch these two names in the final of a slam overpowered all other emotions on both the sides. The banners in the stands referred to the duo as Fedal and even the players seemed high on camaraderie till the end of the fourth set.
Federer was serving missiles and returning bullets in the first set as he smashed 13 winners past an outpaced Nadal. The first serve was high up at 63 percent and he collected 93 percent of the points on it. But the tables turned quickly in the second set and it was the left-handed former World No 1 who marauded past his rival with powerful forehands and a percussive body serve.
Federer came back from three break points down in his first service game of the third set and broke Nadal a couple of times to comfortably seal the set 6-1. But then came a barrage of unforced errors form Roger and he returned the favour to Nadal by almost surrendering in the fourth set. There was no other way than a five-set, nail-biter that this match could have ensued.
It was this fifth set that the match will be remembered by. Federer was broken early as his attempted slices and cross-court forehands continued to crash into the net on several occasions. But the Swiss Maestro upped the ante with a much-improved backhand and finally converted a break point to make it 3-3.
There were several break points after that for both the players, even a 26-shot rally and a double fault. Serving for the Championship, Federer had then conceded a double break point, only to defend successfully.
It was most fitting that there was a challenge at the first Championship Point. Even the title was decided after Federer’s ultimate forehand winner, earlier called out by the umpire, was ruled in by the hawk eye as there were cries of joy from the player and his camp. The topsy-turvy nature of the game was almost too much to handle at times!
When Nadal opened his tennis academy in Majorca four months ago, Federer had turned up to wish him well. Both were sidelined by injuries at that time, reduced to hitting sponge balls against kids and old warriors turned battle-damaged friends. They wore suits, and according to the ones who were there, looked ready for slippers.
Federer’s knee had given up as he was forced to withdraw in the middle of the season – his first long break since turning pro. Not only was he out injured for a duration of around six months, he fell down the rankings and was superseded by a bunch of younger and fitter athletes.
While he was on crutches, his Spanish counterpart was nursing an injured wrist. It had been more than 30 months since he went past a Grand Slam quarter-final and no one expected him to go any further this time around too.
The odds of them and the Williams sisters completing the lineups for the finals were set at 5,000-1 a fortnight ago. Federer was seeded a shocking 17 in the tournament while Rafa was seeded just inside the top 10, at number nine.
With new World No 1 Andy Murray and his closest competitor Novak Djokovic hogging all the limelight ahead of the tournament, no one would have even dreamt of such a situation. But so is the nature of sport – a commentator even called it the best form of reality TV during the final.
Blurring lines: Past, present, future
This was the first major Federer-Nadal final since the Spaniard’s 2011 French Open win. It was the pair’s fourth meeting at Melbourne, with Nadal earning bragging rights in all the previous three clashes. Even head-to-head, FedEx had a dismal 11-23 record against him going into this epic tie.
But all these stats came to nothing as Federer staged one of the most epic fifth set comebacks in a Grand Slam final to claim his fifth Aussie Open crown. In the process, Roger also became the only man in history to win five or more titles at three different major venues.
“This one stands alone, it’s so different from all the others. I know this is a milestone in my career. Like winning the French Open in 2009, or going for my fifth Wimbledon,” said Federer upon lifting the Norman Brookes trophy for the year.
It’s not just the on-court heroics that make these men truly great, it’s about so much more that other players simply fail to invoke. “I would have been happy to lose, too, to be honest,” Federer congratulated Nadal. “The comeback was already fantastic. Tennis is a tough sport, there are no draws but if there were I’d have been happy to draw this one with Rafa.”
In the times of distress across the globe, a final matchup between these two came in as an effective anti-depressant. It might not be long left to write new chapters in this famed rivalry with Roger on the wrong side of his 30s and Nadal failing to get a consistent run on the tour due to fitness concerns.
But as much as these two deserve to be at the top of their games, the game also deserves to see the best of them, at least for another couple of years. Federer, in his classy post-match speech, perfectly summed it up, “Keep playing Rafa please. Tennis needs you. Keep doing everything you do.” And we urge the champion to do the same too.
Images: Australian Open