Even before the match began, the men’s singles final at the 2017 Australian Open was considered to be a match of historical significance for both players involved as well as the sport itself. Roger Federer, seeded 17th, and Rafael Nadal, seeded 9th, were playing each other at the first Grand Slam of the year.
By the end, it was one of the most important matches in men’s tennis history and the greatest Grand Slam title in Federer’s record list of 20. The Swiss maestro won his 18th Major beating arch-rival Nadal 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 in three hours and 37 minutes.
If the seedings were not indication enough, here’s a quick background to why the ‘Fedal’ clash was as unlikely as it was exciting.
Federer was 35 years old and had not won a Grand Slam in five years, since the 2012 Wimbledon. He was coming from a six-month injury layoff after having the first surgery of his career early in 2006. Nadal, at 30, was younger but had also called his 2016 early because of injury and had not won a Major since the 2014 French Open. They had made the final after gruelling five-set battles against younger opponents in a year when the top two – Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray – had been stunned in the first week.
But as much as this was a dream final for tennis fans, it was probably also a nightmare for Federer.
The only thing worse than his Grand Slam drought in the last few years was the manner in which he lost the finals he reached – going down to Djokovic at Wimbledon in 2014 and ‘15 as well as the 2015 US Open. In a way, stuck on 17 Slams for so long, it seemed like his confidence had taken a hit.
So to think when he finally got another shot, he ran into another member of the Big Three and one of his fiercest rivals was not exactly comforting. Their head-to-head was a lopsided 23-11 at the time and the last time they played the final at the Rod Laver Arena, Federer was inconsolable after a five-set loss.
Here they were again, playing each other in their first final since the 2011 French Open. Once again, Federer was the underdog in the clash. Even his staunchest supporters were cautious in their ambition and the expectations were so tempered. His own parents didn’t come to Melbourne, choosing to ski in Switzerland instead. The Swiss himself thought reaching the second week would be an achievement.
That, perhaps, made all the difference as Federer lifted his least likely Grand Slam trophy – beating Nadal in a five-setter at 35 after six months away from the game to win a Major after five years.
How did Federer beat Nadal?
Any tennis fan familiar with Federer’s career from the onset is aware that the Swiss player’s storied game is not without its flaws. He’s as graceful as a ballet dancer on court, but his grit has often fluctuated at big moments. The fluid one-handed backhand has been pulverized by the left-handed Nadal’s forehand.
But he is not in the GOAT conversation for his Grand Slam titles alone, it’s for the way he has both evolved and sustained his style of tennis through two decades at the top. The way in which Federer recalibrated his game, much like how he switched to a bigger racquet a few years ago, and played against Nadal in that final is one of the best examples of his astuteness.
Both players started cautiously, falling into a familiar pattern of rivals who have played each other so many times before. They stayed on serve until the seventh game, when Federer unleashing winners paid off and he got the break. He won the first set smoothly after that… only to be rudely brought back to earth.
The Spaniard amped-up the pressure and got two straight breaks to go 4-0 up. But Federer didn’t give up on the set and even got a break back, but Nadal hung on to make it one-set all. This seemed more to the tune of how many expected the match to go, a thought accentuated by how long it took the Swiss to hold serve in the third-set opener.
Federer was back and he raced his way to a breadstick set, breaking Nadal with his all-out, aggressive tactics. But when has the Spaniard ever backed down from a marathon? Nadal muscled his way into the fourth to push for a decider.
Only fair that a contest like this would have needed the fifth set fireworks.
Federer took a medical time-out before the fifth set, as he had in the semi-final against Stan Wawrinka, and was the first to drop serve in the decider. When Nadal broke his serve in the opening game and took a solid 3-1 lead, it looked to be the final twist of the dramatic evening.
Had the writing on the wall moment finally arrived? How often had Federer been here in the past, so often against the very same opponent. A mix of attacking and awkward punching would take him to the brink but didn’t leave enough for a final flourish. Was it going to happen again?
No, this hungry mid-30s player who missed the game for six months as much as the fans missed him was a different guy, the underdog and the favourite at the same time.
Federer didn’t lose another game.
He broke back Nadal’s serve in the sixth game to put the decider back on serve. He then turned that into a double break as Nadal, seemingly nervous, committed a double fault.
Now, all he had to do was serve it out… only to go down 15-40. He saved one break point with an ace, next with a forehand winner. The first match point was then squandered and on the second, it appeared that an error had occurred again. But Hawkeye was called upon and the replay showed the ball was just in and Federer had done it.
He had ended a six-match losing streak against Nadal at Grand Slams, he had beaten the Spaniard outside of Wimbledon for the first time, he had reversed the painful 2009 loss that “killed him”. Crucially, he had won his 18th Grand Slam at 35, becoming the second oldest man, beating his staunchest rival at a time he was ranked outside the top-15 and not played competitive tennis for six months.
No one can definitely say what tipped the scales in Federer’s favour, he himself has tried to explain it vaguely, like in this interview with ESPN after his sensational start to 2017.
Oh, s***, he’s got me at the finish line… I recall saying, ‘You have to try to break now, pal, because later on he is going to stay in the lead and have the break, and then too much luck is involved to turn the whole thing around… I told myself, ‘I’ve done very little wrong. I’ve played committed. I’ve played bigger with my backhand than I ever have against Rafa. I’ve hit a lot of backhand winners.’… I had the best 20 minutes of my life, maybe, on the tennis court. I just zoned in and just went ...
Maybe it was the fact that he was not under as much pressure as he was in other Slams, maybe he had developed new tactics and rediscovered his hunger during the layoff, maybe the break gave him time to work on fitness that enabled him to win three five-set matches and beat players like No 10 Tomas Berdych, No 5 Kei Nishikori and No 4 Stan Wawrinka.
But whatever the reason, this win kickstarted a second wind like few others in sport as he went on to not only have a prolific year with seven titles but also defend his title in 2018, the first time he won as reigning champion since 2008. It was an unlikely and poignant win, making it the greatest of his already illustrious collection.
As a line in The Guardian report said, “Performing at this level in your prime is one thing; doing it as the lights dim is the mark of untouchable greatness.”
Here are the highlights of the match
And the final five games in full
Bonus: The emotional, sporting and overall amazing speeches by both Federer and Nadal.