MELBOURNE, Australia – Roger Federer’s 18th Grand Slam victory celebration was delayed, as has now almost become the norm, by one last Hawkeye challenge.
Rafael Nadal made it – just to make sure his own unexpected major title quest was indeed, indisputably, over.
As the 35-year-old looked over to his supporters’ box, filled with friends, coaches and wife Mirka – a delirious group – he knew he had won the Australian Open. And the tears came.
The last time Federer cried on Rod Laver Arena came all the way back in 2009, and it was in bitter defeat. This time, there was only joy as perhaps the unlikeliest of his major titles came after a five-set battle with his greatest rival.
“I would have been happy to lose to, to be honest. The comeback was perfect as it was. There are no draws in tennis but if there was one, I would have been happy to have one tonight and share it with Rafa, Really,” Federer said after the 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 win that was big on tension, a little short on great tennis, but in the end lived up to much of the excessive hype in the leadup to it.
“In the end, I was able to distance myself from it, and embrace it. It was historic, in a way, with Rafa, the way everybody was talking about it,” Federer said. “In the last – we’re talking many years ago – it was, like, ‘Okay, we’ve heard it before. We’ll play the two weeks and stay calm’. Not this time. I had an enormous desire to play against him, knowing what it means for the sport, for me, for him.
“That freshness, I think it helped me,” he added.
At 35 and 30, these two are not the players they were the last time the Federer floodgates opened. In the interim, they had twice played on Rod Laver Arena – but in the semi-finals, emblematic of their gradual drift down from the top.
The hairlines are beginning to show a little wear and tear (although Nadal has done some revival work there). Their bodies and games have some frayed edges.
Federer used to be the player who never took a medical timeout. In this tournament he did it twice, against Stan Wawrinka in the semi-finals and against Nadal after losing the court set Sunday.
Both times he came roaring back.
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 29, 2017
The last several years of Nadal’s career have been a battle against his own body and given his status as the No. 9 seed and with Federer all the way down at No. 17, they were underdogs to reach the final when for so many years they were the odds-on favourites.
“This one is like, it stands alone. This one is like a loner,” Federer said later in a television interview. “It’s so different from all the others.”
The title ends a nearly five-year major drought for Federer, who always talked confidently about winning another one, whether he really believed it inside or not.
“It was difficult to come into press conferences and say, ‘It’ll come. Because at a certain point, no one believes you any more.”
Down a break in the fifth set, he roared back to take the last five games against a surprisingly passive Nadal.
“I kind of thought I was going to get broken to start the fifth; I couldn’t really find my zones on serve in the fourth, and he was serving well,” Federer said. “I knew it would be tough in the fifth, but I was surprised how quickly it went from 1-3 to 6-3. There were some crazy rallies; I kept pushing forward, and it was fabulous.”
The Mallorcan said he had recovered well from the 4 1/2-hour five-set win over Grigor Dimitrov in Friday’s semi-final. But he was strangely flat. More noticeably, he threw aside all of the subtle tactical adjustments he had made in earlier matches, notably his change of serve position against Canadian Milos Raonic.
Nadal was back behind the Melbourne sign to return Federer’s serve, and it cost him. He served efficiently to Federer’s body late in the match but when the Swiss star adjusted, he didn’t.
“I started to play more clear again. If you’re going to win this match, it’s only going to be by playing up on the court,” Federer said later. “The body serve midway through the fourth and width, I struggled to read it, I struggled to fight it out. I told myself, ‘Be offensive, take it early. The court is going to give you something.’
“All you need is a couple of good connections, and of course you need a little bit of luck,” he added.
If there was a hangover from the Dimitrov match, it may have been more mental than physical for Nadal but it’s worth nothing that neither player has fought for a major title in awhile.
“Is true that probably remain a little bit of speed today compared to the last day in my legs probably, little bit. But that’s normal after what happened one day and a half ago. Like this I think I tried. I didn’t play bad,” Nadal said. “But is true (it) was difficult to play a lot because he really went for the shots, almost for every shot.”
It is not in Nadal’s nature or history to drop the final five games of a major final without fighting like a demon possessed to right the ship. He didn’t have it in him Sunday night.
The last time he won a five-setter in the semi-finals and failed to the ensuring final was here, all the way back in 2007. A decade ago. But after a 2016 season when he said he only felt like himself between Indian Wells in March and Madrid in May, he’s on the right road.
Earlier in the tournament, both Federer and Nadal evoked the moment last October when Federer visited Mallorca to help open Nadal’s eponymous academy.
They were to play an exhibition; they decided, given their mutual physical woes, they would settle for hitting a few balls with the kids.
Three months later, they played their biggest match in years.
— doublefault28 (@doublefault28) January 29, 2017
Coming as it has after a six-month layoff, it will only add to Federer’s legend and in the “Greatest of all time” discussion – because that just didn’t come up ENOUGH in the leadup to this – it turned a potentially narrow 17-15 edge over Nadal to a far more comfortable 18-14 lead.
The truth, though, is that six months off to heal his body could have been a blessing more than a hardship, even if it was hard to imagine Federer could win such a big title in his first official tournament back on the circuit, only his second major since he turned 30
For Nadal, who now faces that same “post-30” title challenge, there were positives.
“You always need little bit of luck. This year I won important match against (Alexander) Zverev in the third round. That’s important. I won great matches against great players. I competed well against everybody. That’s the most important thing for me. That makes me feel happy,” he said. “ But the real thing is what makes me more happy, more than the titles, is go on the court and feel that I can enjoy the sport.
“Today I am enjoying the sport.”
If there was a cautionary note it came in Federer’s speech during the trophy ceremony. “I hope to see you next year. But if not, this was a wonderful run here,” he said.
Has Federer ever put that sort of caveat at the end of a tournament? It’s hard to remember. He has always brushed off talk of retirement and indicated his intention to play two or three more years.
Later, he downplayed it a little.
“This is all about, you know, knowing that I have only so much tennis left in me. If I do get injured, you know, maybe if I miss next year. Who knows what happens,” he said. “I mean, look, I’ve had a tough year last year. Three five-setters are not going to help. I just meant it the way I meant it. There wasn’t something planned behind it, that this is my last Australian Open. I hope can I come back, of course. That’s my hope right now.”
No player has even beaten four top-10 players in one year at the Australian Open. Federer did that – Tomas Berdych in the third round, Kei Nishikori in the round of 16, Stan Wawrinka in the semis, and Nadal in the final. It was not, despite the early exits of No. 1 Andy Murray and No. 2 Novak Djokovic, a cakewalk of a draw.
“Now we made it, and we’re going to party like rock stars tonight,” he said.