Australian Open 2017: Rafael Nadal's impressive return shows he can still stretch the limits of possibility

In case you have not heard, Rafael Nadal lost. From a position of strength, he let the fifth set go. Roger Federer, a player who would often fall by the wayside when put under duress by his Spanish nemesis, found the courage to fight and was amply rewarded for it. But here was Nadal again, defeated at the Australian Open when things were going right for him.

“Being honest, in these kinds of matches I won a lot of times against him.” But not this time. In a match where fortunes swung as wildly as hippies at a bohemian get-together, Nadal was forced to submit to the will of a man whose desire to embellish his legacy never shone stronger. Five years ago, against Novak Djokovic, the Spaniard was a break up in the decider but eventually lost an epic final. The match on Sunday, for the final set alone, was no less lacking in drama.

 Australian Open 2017: Rafael Nadals impressive return shows he can still stretch the limits of possibility

Roger Federer congratulated by Rafael Nadal after their Australian Open final. AP

But unlike other defeats in Slam finals, this one was different. For it did not overshadow everything that Nadal achieved in Australia over the past fortnight. Neither did it end in the kind of physical pain that left a dark cloud over him when he lost to Stan Wawrinka in 2014. Despite the loss to Federer, the Nadal we thought we had lost, shone through – a rare athlete who stretches the limits of possibility every time we doubt him.

“I cannot say that I am sad. I wanted to win, yes, but I am not very sad. I did all the things that I could. I worked a lot during all these months. I enjoyed the competition. I won against the best players of the world, and I competed well against everybody."

While this may seem empty talk coming from any other player who is hoping to come to terms with a defeat, it is quite something else when Nadal says it. Unlike some of the notable names on tour, the Spaniard was not a wild child in his teenage years. His tempers have been reasonably calm, there were no drugs or women-related issues or an angst holding him back. But then there was the case of his dodgy ankles. The pain spread from them to cover most parts of his body. It is a terrible anxiety to live with.

Nadal fought past all of the troubles to establish himself where he is. But in the past two years, time had seemingly caught up with him. Forced to constantly alter his game, there was only so much he could do.

"Last year was tough. When you feel that you are playing very well and you have to go from Roland Garros without going on court. ... I remember myself crying on the car coming back to hotel."

But there were no tears this time as he had finally seen the pains of his wrist injury away. The bedrock of his game was built on a serve infused with variety and the double-fisted backhand. Indeed, the crosscourt backhand proved to be an invaluable ally on Sunday.

But thanks to the sped up courts at the Australian Open this year, he did not have his usual allowance for errors against Federer. As Nadal acknowledged in the post-match press conference, he felt a bit slow on some points but explained it as a normal consequence of the tumultuous semifinal he played on Friday. He did not bring his lofty standards to the final but they were good enough to bring him very close to a special win.

Before the final began, doubles specialist Jamie Murray took to Twitter to share his insight – “If Rafa plays a great match he won’t lose. Fed could play a great match and still lose. That’s the difference for me (sic)” The argument remained true even after the result. Such is the skewed nature of this rivalry, Nadal was able to assert himself even when his best form deserted him.

Whether that makes him a better player is a moot point. It is a discussion perhaps not even worth having, for both Federer and Nadal enrich tennis in ways dissimilar. To privilege one over the other would be an exercise in futility. Both players have reached a stage in their careers where a Slam title does not provide the kind of validation it used to do.

This is not to discount the very strong ambitions that Federer and Nadal hold for winning more major honours. But it is a point worth making that neither of them will be a lesser player if they do not add to their glittering collection of trophies. Such privilege is afforded to only the very best.

However, Nadal will remain mindful of exploiting his impressive form and fitness in the months to come. “I believe that playing like this, good things can happen. Can happen here in this surface, but especially can happen on clay," he said after the final on Sunday.

The comforts of clay and French Open will resonate strongly with Nadal if things remain in his control. But when can one ever be sure of that with him? Fitness problems will always lurk in the corner but that is a pain with which Nadal has learnt to live. As he said in the aftermath of the final. “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.”

So are we, in ways that very few thought were possible.

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Updated Date: Jan 30, 2017 11:30:36 IST