Sport is one of humanities greatest gifts. To expect the unexpected is to be expected. For many tennis fans, the likelihood of either Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal just making it to the second Sunday of the 2017 Australian Open appeared fanciful.
Federer, who hadn’t played since July, and prior to the tournament received arguably the toughest draw of any contender, saw the 4th round as a good result.
Nadal too had an extended layoff since October. The Spaniard’s form however was the bigger concern, notably the lack of depth and power on his groundstrokes, which left him vulnerable on any surface other than clay.
All that was dispelled sensationally over the past fortnight, which climaxed on Sunday night, with one of the most highly anticipated Grand Slam finals of all time.
In summary, Roger Federer defeated longtime nemesis, Rafael Nadal in five sets, after being down a break in the deciding fifth set. Federer’s 18th Slam extends his lead on the all-time list, pulling further ahead of Nadal (14).
The Swiss Maestro has also strongly solidified his case as Tennis’ GOAT (Greatest Of All Time), by winning a slam that many believed was beyond his grasp. For Federer, it’s not only the fact that he won, but how we won, considering the obvious impediments that were thrown in his path. It’s absolutely remarkable.
Firstly, neither himself or Rafa had to deal with Murray or Djokovic, who were both eliminated surprisingly early. But, due to their lower seedings, they both played a greater depth of quality opponents from the 3rd round onwards.
Federer’s Road To The Title: Berdych 3rd round, Nishikori 4th round, Zverev QF, Wawrinka SF, Nadal F.
Nadal’s Road To The Final: A Zverev 3rd round, Monfils 4th round, Raonic QF, Dimitrov SF, Federer F (Lost).
Consider, this was the first ATP Tournament the Fed has played since Wimbledon in July, due to a knee injury. Also, consider that he had no match fitness heading into arguably the most demanding tournament of the season. Furthermore, Federer is now 35 years of age, a pensioner in the tennis world, and the recovery times for a man of his age isn’t as workable as it once was.
For several years now it’s been the widely held belief that against this younger competition, Federer is at a severe disadvantage, especially when it comes to the best of five set matches. Pundits also added that if he’s to win against these guys he’d have to do it in 4 sets or less. This Slam? He went to 5 sets against Rafa, Kei and Stan and beat all of them.
There’s also no doubt that Federer has felt the expectation and pressure of the crowd over the years as they are almost physically pulling him across the line. Without any shadow of doubt, he’s clearly the most popular tennis player on the planet, but this alongside his sterling resume has resulted in an almost unreal pressure being placed on his shoulders.
The final and perhaps most difficult obstacle for Federer was, Nadal himself. Since the early days of their rivalry back in 2005, Nadal has had Federer’s number. Heading into the final, Nadal held an impressive 23-11 record against Federer, including an 8-2 lead in Grand Slam matches. History favoured the Spaniard, Federer hadn’t beaten him in a Slam since 2007. A whole decade!
Federer has recently admitted as much, saying that Nadal’s early dominance over him on clay affected him mentally for years, “Maybe I lost the Wimbledon finals in 2008 because of too many clay court matches, because he crushed me [6-1, 6-3, 6-0] at the French Open final.”
“That’s kind of the things I meant with it. It was more mentally something at some moments. Now it’s a different time. A lot of time has gone by. I know this court (Rod Laver Arena) allows me to play a certain game against Rafa that I cannot do on centre court at the French Open,” Federer said.
Well Federer certainly acted out that on Sunday night. His aggressive play in the first, third and back half of the fifth set were indicative of what he’s needed to do against Nadal over the past decade.
Had Federer lost on Sunday, Nadal’s claim to be the sport’s greatest champion would’ve had far more substance. And, yes there’s still time for Rafa to continue the chase (Roland Garros anyone?), but at the age of 30 and a body that continues to break down time is running out.
For now though, let’s be grateful that the tennis gods conspired to give us one last blast from the past. A journey into one of sport’s greatest rivalries, giving us two of the world’s fiercest competitors, whose unsurpassable resumes are based on respect for their opponents and this great game. The world sure could use some of that right now.