If, at the start of the year, someone had told me that Roger Federer would get to the final of the 2017 Australian Open, I would have scoffed. If someone had also told me that Rafael Nadal would get to the final, I would have laughed. If someone had also told me that Roger would beat Rafa in five epic sets, sweeping the last five games with a purple patch of groundstroke winners and clutch get-out-of-jail aces, I would have thought they were a fruitcake in the grip of a psychotic episode and inched away. No doubt the man himself would have arched a disbelieving eyebrow and told you he would just be happy making enough prize money to cover the airfare.
But it happened. Somehow, impossibly, it happened. The fairytale final gave us the fairytale result. I have long had a flickering hope that Federer might win one more major, but never for a nanosecond did I think he could do so by beating his biggest rival. As a Federer fan, my brain is encrusted with scar tissue from the many big matches I’ve watched him lose to Nadal. Roger’s rivalry with Rafa is a rivalry of pain. The Spaniard beating the Swiss in grand slam finals is a time-hardened tradition, one of the fundamental laws on which men’s tennis rests. The notion that Federer, aged 35 and coming off a six-month injury layoff, could overcome his nemesis in a major final for the first time in ten years – for the first time ever away from Wimbledon – wasn’t just unlikely, it was a gross insult to plausibility.
How, for one thing, would he master his nerves? Even in Federer’s imperial phase (2005-2009) he struggled mentally with the challenge posed by Nadal, and each of the three grand slam finals he played in 2014 and 2015 (against Novak Djokovic) were lost in part due to the Swiss’s big-match jitters. Like many, I thought Federer’s last chance had come – and gone – at the 2015 US Open final, when he took only four of 23 break points despite having the support of possibly the most pro-Roger crowd in tennis history. It was as if an imp of doubt whispered in his ear during the big points and he forgot he was the most successful player in tennis history.
And if doubts plagued him against Novak Djokovic, a player he has beaten plentifully in the past, what chance did he stand against Rafa – his curse, his kryptonite, a player with a game precision-engineered, seemingly, to beat him? And let’s not forget. This was no ordinary grand slam final. Fedal XXXV was the most legacy-critical match Roger would ever play. History pivoted on the outcome. If Federer won, he would pull four majors clear of Nadal and confirm himself as the greatest player to tote a racquet. But if Nadal won, he would sit just two majors behind, with the French Open (where he has nine titles and counting) looming large. And it would tilt a lopsided head-to-head (23-11) further in Nadal’s favour, raising again the question: how can Federer be the greatest player of all time when he isn’t even the greatest player of his generation?
So it was an important match. But to me – and I suspect, to Federer himself – Fedal XXXV seemed less an explosive final-act culmination than the bonus epilogue. Face it: Nadal won this rivalry in 2008-2009, when he beat Federer in three grand slam finals on three different surfaces. Since then, other rivalries – Nadal-Djokovic, Djokovic-Federer, Djokovic-Murray, Djokovic-Wawrinka – have come along and eclipsed it. This isn’t the noughties any more. Neither Nadal nor Federer are fresh-faced wunderkinds in the full rude vigour of their twenties. Rafa’s mane of untamed hair is unmistakeably thinning; Roger’s face is lined with the disappointments of coming up short in the quest for one more major. In tennis terms, they are past it. At the dawn of 2017, Federer and Nadal had won one grand slam between them in the last three years.
The Australian Open final, then, was an gloriously unexpected gift from two weatherbeaten warriors in the evening of their careers. Strain, and you could almost hear the world of sport holding its breath, the tennis journalists reaching for their juiciest superlatives. Me, I thought the match would be entertaining in parts, but eventually play out the way it almost always does. That is, with Nadal wearing Federer down. The Spaniard’s playbook for beating Roger is nothing if not well-thumbed. Basically, hit crosscourt forehand after crosscourt forehand to Federer’s backhand, until Federer’s backhand (bullied to buggery by all that topspin) coughs up a short ball or an error. Point Nadal. And so – familiarly – on. But just this once, it didn’t happen that way.
Evidently, Federer had not spent his six-month injury layoff sitting with folded hands. He had spent it upgrading his backhand. And in the final against Nadal we witnessed the full majesty of Backhand 2.0 – a shot newly undaunted by Nadal’s topspin, capable of firing winners both crosscourt and down-the-line. When it comes to piecing together the how of Federer’s win, the new, faster Australian Open court was a factor, as was with the heaviness in Nadal’s legs after his five-hour semi-final with Grigor Dimitrov. But the biggest difference-maker? Roger’s backhand. He hit 14 backhand winners in the final – the majority coming when he needed them the most. In the fifth set.
The fifth set. For Federer fans, it will go down in legend and song. Of course, it all began so unpromisingly – with Roger being broken by an ascendant, victory-sensing Rafa in the opening game. In my head, at that point, I concluded all was lost. But in my heart, there still fluttered a butterfly of hope. Pessimistic as my pre-match predictions had been, Federer had been the better player. The match was on his racquet. He could still win: he just needed to conquer his doubts, empty his mind of negative vibrations. Not so easy, admittedly, when your nemesis is standing on the other side of the net. And is just five holds of serve away from victory.
It is an unwritten tennis law that Federer loses close matches against his biggest rivals. You might not be able to out-forehand him, but you can outfight him. Just ask Djokovic. Or, of course, Nadal. But in assuming that Federer would fold once again, I had been mistaken. This was a new, self-knowing Roger Federer, who didn’t fade and didn’t fear defeat. Coolly self-possessed, his mind as clear as ice water, he fought back against Nadal, showing a pitch of brilliance I had long thought beyond him in a big match. With history at his shoulder, Federer played some of the finest tennis of his career. In two straight Nadal service games, he earned break points and didn’t take them – missed opportunities that would have deflated him in the past. No more. Undaunted, he broke Nadal in his next two service games and, serving for the match, fended off two break-back points: the first with an ace, the second with a fearless forehand howitzer.
That Federer won the match, somewhat awkwardly, on a Hawkeye challenge, didn’t spoil the moment. How could it? This was History. Federer’s magical 18th grand slam, won at 35 years old, after a six-month injury hiatus, over five sets, against nemesis of nemeses Rafael Nadal. His most memorable major, won when everyone expected it the least. Seeing Federer celebrate, his face flooded with a childlike joy, is not something I’m not likely to forget any time soon – and at the risk of being accused of Fedolatry, was exactly the sort of tonic a troubled world needed.
It’s time for everyone to stop wagging loose tongues. The debate is settled, forever, amen. Roger Federer is the greatest tennis player of all time. Of course, he was before. But now his career has the only meaningful thing it was missing: an unforgettable, final-act flourish.