You cannot do theatre as sport does. Even the greatest playwright man has ever known may have found it beyond their creative abilities to script the kind of drama that tennis offered us this past fortnight. Over the past twelve years, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have given us several blockbusters, but the outcome remained largely predictable. Not on Sunday. In perhaps one of the finest nights of his gilded career, Federer discovered just enough magic potion to tame his tormentor and claim an unfathomable 18th Grand Slam title.
Federer did not need to pad his collection of crowns with one more Grand Slam. After all, the great man has discovered several new peaks on his voyage of sporting immortality. But then, this was no ordinary final. It was a reunion with his nemesis, a man that tormented and toyed with Federer, unlike any other.
If you believe in numbers, the signs were all pointing to Nadal. The Spaniard had a lopsided 23-11 advantage over the Swiss champion. Nadal had also defeated him in all but two of their eleven Grand Slam matches. Nadal had won his last Grand Slam on the Parisian dirt in 2014, Federer hadn’t tasted glory since that fine London summer in 2012. The last time Federer got the better of his Spanish rival in a major, was a decade ago. It was a laboured victory too, in the finals of Wimbledon 2007. The memories haunt Federer, so much so that he has openly admitted lacking the answers needed to tame the bull.
Nadal’s ramrod forehand, loaded with topspin demolished Federer time and again. The slice serve to the backhand posed interminable problems, as Federer struggled to produce a substantive response. The Swiss walked to the court with a musical accompaniment and paint brushes. Nadal arrived with a sledgehammer and an endless supply of resilience. The artist in Federer would eventually be blown away by the blacksmith in Nadal. It was a recurrent theme, one that made Federer cry. “God, it’s killing me,” offered Federer before drowning in his own tears after losing the 2009 final in Melbourne.
But this time, the two gladiators were arriving to this final date out of cold storage. Federer called a time out at the end of Wimbledon last year to rest his injured body, Nadal ended the season early to deal with a painful wrist. Obviously the two great men spent their time off the ATP World Tour very well. Federer returned looking sharper than he has in many years. As did Nadal, with the forehand looking ready for another demolition act.
And then Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray threw the draw wide open, making unexpected exits. Federer and Nadal wasted no time throwing their hats in the ring. The Swiss offered a tennis lesson to Tomas Berdych before overcoming a stern test against Kei Nishikori. Nadal escaped from the youthful clutches of Alexander Zverev. Stan Wawrinka and Milos Raonic battled their best, but only in vain. Neither man could inflict a defeat despite extracting a pair of sets each from Federer and Nadal respectively. As the familiar foes prepared for a XXXV chapter in an epic rivalry, fans and experts alike dreamt of an epochal finale.
"If you think about the historical significance of what that match would look like, one at 14 Slams, one at 17 Slams, Rafa wins, it's 15-17, and the French Open is around the corner, it's back on,” gushed Andy Roddick, building up the anticipation for a Fedal final. “It's literally game on for the most Slams ever. If Roger wins, it's 18-14. I don't know that that divide gets made up. If that happens, it has to be the most important match in Australian Open history and possibly Grand Slam history," he concluded.
The match itself wasn’t one of consistent quality. Perhaps, the gravity of this match was weighing on both men. It swung back and forth like a yo-yo before Federer imposed himself towards the end.
The Swiss got out of the gates like a raging bull, producing some blistering strokes off his forehand and backhand. He was taking the ball early, serving big and closing the net with crisp volleys.
In the past, Federer used a slice backhand in response to a persistent barrage of forehand crosscourt bullets from Nadal. On Sunday though, Federer showed yet again that he was still capable of not just creativity, but also solid execution. The 17th seed took full advantage of the faster court conditions in Melbourne. He decided to go over the ball, often playing inside the baseline. It was a move that paid rich dividends. Federer’s ploy rushed Nadal, spreading the rallies far more evenly than in their past encounters.
Incidentally, Roger seems to have also worked on his backhand during his time off. The crosscourt backhand became an ally to Federer. He rolled his racket over the ball, even as he used his wrist to control the direction of the ball. The stroke helped push Nadal deep and wide, opening the court for the down the line.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing though. Both players mixed the good with the bad, liberally. After playing a brilliant first set, Federer seemed to lose his first serve and rhythm off the ground. He regained his touch toward the end of the second, but it was too late for a salvage operation.
Federer played his best tennis in the third set. As a packed Rod Laver Arena watched in rapt attention, he produced some of the best shots we have seen him play this decade. But Nadal isn’t a sailor who is blown away by a storm.
He threatened to take the match away from Federer with his trademark persistence. Nadal looked set for victory after taking the fourth set and cruising to a 2-0 lead in the fifth.
The situation was classic to this rivalry. Federer producing sparks of brilliance before Nadal steals the thunder with a relentless barrage of power and spin.
Only this time, he was dealing with a Federer who wasn’t shy of reinventing his game at the ripe age of 35. At 1-3 down, Federer needed to react and do so quickly.
Well into the fourth hour of their match, they produced a passage of brilliance that shall remain in currency for several years to come. Roger produced a gem of a backhand winner in the sixth game to fuel his way back into the match.
It was deep in the eighth game. Nadal had just worked his way back from 0-40. Their rich history suggested that it was maestro’s turn to blink and make way for an unrelenting matador. Instead, it was Federer that showed enormous staying power. He survived a barrage of thundering bullets before striking a forehand down the line winner to end the 26 shot rally.
After years of suffering at the hands of Nadal, it was perhaps the moment when Federer finally managed to break the Spaniard’s will. The Swiss slipped to 15-40, serving for the championship. Much like Nadal, he worked his way back into the match before clinching victory with a short angle forehand winner.
The impossible had been achieved and Federer roared his lungs out. The maker of symphonies had forged his way past his greatest obstacle to collect an elusive 18th Grand Slam title. It was only Federer’s third victory against Nadal in a major, but it came in the most important match of their lives.
Federer could not have asked for a better narrative to seal his claim to greatness. Finally, he found a way to tame his greatest enemy, but he had also done so in a manner reminiscent of Nadal himself.
Nadal was essential for Federer’s quest for greatness. It was only fitting that he was the man drawing the door open for Federer’s passage into a realm of immortality. The GOAT debate is well and truly settled now. And it was only fitting that Rod Laver was on hand to pass the mantle to Federer by handing him the 18th major trophy of his legendary career.
Updated Date: Jan 30, 2017 10:14 AM