It was Roger Federer’s unlikeliest Grand Slam title, which is quite a statement for a 35-year-old champion who has now won 18 of them.
But where else should one rank this Australian Open, where Federer was rightfully a true outsider? Where he arrived seeded just 17th, having not played an official tournament for more than six months because of a knee injury that spoiled his 2016 season?
Even his own expectations were tempered.
“I would have said a great event would be quarters,” Federer said. “Fourth round would be nice.”
He would get a great deal more than that in Melbourne, a city where he has had plenty of heartaches to go with his successes through the years and the tears.
He is now the oldest man to win a Grand Slam singles title in 45 years, and he pulled it off by defeating his longtime rival Rafael Nadal, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3, on Sunday to win the Australian Open for the fifth time.
8 Grand Slam Finals That Pitted Rafael Nadal Against Roger Federer JAN. 27, 2017
“You don’t know if they ever come back, these moments,” said Federer, whose most recent major championship had come at Wimbledon way back in 2012.
He earned himself another career highlight by playing with verve and precision, but also by hustling and scrapping his way through three five-set matches in the final four rounds.
Although he did not have to deal with the world’s top two players, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, who were upset in the first week, Federer did have to face four top 10 players.
He defeated No. 10 Tomas Berdych, No. 5 Kei Nishikori, No. 4 Stan Wawrinka and — most important and symbolic — No. 9 Nadal, the swashbuckling Spanish left-hander who has so often thwarted Federer on big occasions. But he failed to seal the deal on Sunday despite taking a 3-1 lead in the fifth set.
“Being honest, in these kinds of matches I won a lot of times against him,” Nadal, 30, said. “Today he beat me, and I just congratulate him.”
The final — one that few could have foreseen when this tournament began — was a flashback to a decade ago, when Federer and Nadal were long the top two players in the world.
But it was not business as usual for Federer against Nadal. His one-handed backhand has long been the weak link in his elegant game when he faces Nadal, whose whipping topspin forehand has forced Federer to hit too many backhands above the shoulder — too many backhands, period.
But Federer took a different approach on Sunday, driving his backhand for the vast majority of the match instead of opting for the more defensive slice. He ripped through his backhand returns as well, and Nadal was unable to grind him down and destroy his rhythm as he had in many of their recent encounters.
“He did not surprise me,” Nadal said. “He was playing aggressively, and I understand that in a match against me. I don’t think it would have been intelligent to try to get into too many long rallies from the baseline. I don’t think he would have won. He went for it, and it was the right thing for him to do.”
The result was a brisk five-setter by Nadal’s standards. He required 4 hours 56 minutes to beat Federer’s stylistic acolyte, Grigor Dimitrov, and his one-handed backhand in the semifinals.
Sunday’s final lasted just 3:37, and that included a medical timeout that Federer took off court after losing the fourth set.
Federer has rarely taken that liberty through the years, but he did the same before the fifth set of his semifinal victory over Wawrinka, citing an upper leg injury. On Sunday, he did not cite a specific injury when he spoke immediately after the match.
“Well look, my body is hurting, like Rafa’s as well, I’m sure,” he said. “It’s my third fifth set after six months, being 35 years old. I don’t like to say it. But it’s true. I’m so old.”
Federer laughed after the fact, but he looked grim when Nadal broke his serve in the opening game of the fifth set and jumped out to that 3-1 lead.
But Federer broke back to 3-3 in a game when Nadal made a very atypical error: missing a midcourt forehand that nicked the net cord and sailed wide. He eventually lost the game with another unforced error on an inside-out forehand that just missed.
Federer then broke Nadal again in the eighth game of the set — on his fifth break point of the game — to take a 5-3 lead.
All Federer had to do now was serve out the match, but he quickly fell behind by 15-40. He saved one break point with an ace and another with a forehand winner.
But though he made a forehand error on his first championship point, he converted the second with a crosscourt forehand, which was called in and challenged by Nadal.
The players awkwardly waited for confirmation. When the ball was shown to be good, Federer was soon jumping in place and grinning in the direction of his box.
He is the second oldest man to win a major singles title in the Open era, behind only Ken Rosewall who won the 1970 United States Open when he was approaching his 36th birthday, the 1971 Australian Open at 36 and the 1972 Australian Open at 37.Federer has long admired Rosewall, Rod Laver and the leading players of Australia’s golden tennis era. He has helped create a new team competition called the Laver Cup that will start later this year. Rosewall and Laver have attended Federer’s matches during this tournament and have a personal relationship with him.
“I love that generation of players with Tony Roche, Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Roy Emerson,” Federer said before Sunday’s final.
But Federer is the one making the tennis history now, and it was Laver who appropriately presented him the trophy at Rod Laver Arena on Sunday night amid the flashes and the roars of approval from the capacity crowd.
Federer’s victory over Nadal significantly increased his chances of remaining the career leader in men’s Grand Slam singles titles. With 18, he has a sizable lead over Nadal, who ranks second with 14.
Nadal has long dominated the head-to-head series with Federer and still leads 23-12, including a 6-3 record in their major finals. Federer had not beaten Nadal at a Grand Slam tournament since the 2007 Wimbledon final.
Nadal won their most memorable final: a five-setter at Wimbledon in 2008 that ended in the twilight and is a candidate for the greatest match eve.
But Sunday’s long test of talent and perseverance will make the Federer-Nadal short list as well. Nadal’s superiority on clay is a big explanation for his career edge. He has won 13 of their 15 matches on the surface, but it is not the only big explanation. Nadal also had won eight of their 10 matches on outdoor hard courts coming into Sunday night’s final and had beaten Federer in their three previous matches at the Australian Open.
His whipping left-handed forehand remains the shot that has done the most damage to Federer’s game and confidence through the years. Nadal’s sliced serve, which forces Federer to hit backhand return after backhand return, has been decisive, too.
It is also about the complete package: Nadal’s remarkable court coverage and seemingly unsinkable competitive spirit; his passing shots, underrated versatility and tactical acumen; and his two-handed backhand, which was particularly solid and effective during this tournament.
But Nadal, who also missed the end of last season recovering from a wrist injury, could not manage to stop Federer in what may have been their last hurrah together in a Grand Slam final.
This was their most unexpected summit meeting. But they arrived in Melbourne healthy and reinvigorated and then took the hint when Djokovic and Murray lost early.
“I would have been happy to lose too, to be honest,” Federer said during the trophy ceremony. “The comeback was perfect as it was.
“Tennis is a tough sport. There’s no draws, but if there was going to be one, I would have been very happy to accept a draw tonight and share it with Rafa.”