Roger Federer rewound his career by about ten years to edge out his old rival Rafael Nadal in a sensational Australian Open final to take his eighteenth Grand Slam title at 35. A championship climax that lived up to all its extravagant billing ended with Federer winning 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 in three hours and 38 minutes after dramatically turning round the fifth set from a break down. In a match that had echoes of their incredible Wimbledon final of 2008 – in terms of sheer theatre if with a different outcome – he came back from 3-1 down to reel off the last five games. An elated Federer afterwards paid tribute to his opponent saying, ‘Tennis is a tough sport, there are no draws but if there were I would have been happy to share it with Rafa.
When we saw each other four or five months ago (at Nadal’s academy) we never believed we could be in the finals. I’m very happy for you, I would have been happy to lose. ‘I work hard but try not to shout about it. It has been a different last six months and I wasn’t sure I would make it here.’ Nadal said: ‘Congrats to Roger, it’s amazing how he is playing without being on the tour. It has been a great month for me, I really enjoyed it.’ A tearful, disbelieving Federer won it on a second match point when serving for it after breaking for 5-3 in one of the finest games these two have ever played against each other. Getting back from two break points down he put a forehand long on his first match point and then on the second had an agonising wait of around 20 seconds while he challenged the linesman’s call, who had adjudged his angled forehand to have missed the line. Hawk-Eye reversed the call – an irony as Federer has taken a lot of convincing about the system – and he raised his arms aloft in victory. The two prime heavyweights of modern tennis had slugged it out in a glorious, undulating contest that was so tight at the end of the fourth set that they were both on exactly 110 points each.
Although Nadal had finished his semi-final 24 hours later it was Federer who looked slightly stiff in the early exchanges, before seeming to find his rhythm in the sixth game. He then broke for 4-3 when he made Nadal reach for a backhand that sailed wide. The break was consolidated with an excellent service game that augured well for him, as big serving night was non-negotiable. At the start of the second Nadal signalled that he would revert more to his stock tactic of booming topspun forehands to his opponent’s backhand and it paid dividends when the Swiss netted a backhand on break point The set was effectively over when several loose forehands resulted in a second break for 4-0 in the Spaniard’s favour, and although a more relaxed Federer pulled one of those back he could not stop the match being levelled.
When the first two sets are split the winner of the third set had gone on to win the last thirteen Australian Open finals when that was the case, so the third could hardly have looked more pivotal. Five aces from Federer saw him hold off three break points in the opening game, and that appeared to deflate Nadal, sweating profusely compared to his opponent, who was broken straight afterwards. Federer’s serve was working like a Swiss clock again, and his returns came desperately close to making it 4-0 when he forced three more break points. Nadal’s serve got him out of that but the world number seventeen’s sweeping forehand winners were taking their toll as the Spaniard retreated a little from the baseline, allowing the angles to open up. Federer was taking the ball early to minimise his opponent’s time to set himself up, and his backhand was purring as he went 5-1 up. Nadal was running out of ideas and sent three of his rackets off to be restrung. He began to look a little jaded at the start of the fourth, and given his five hour match on Friday night that would only be human. Yet he is not one of the all-time great competitors for nothing, and when Federer missed a forehand with the court wide open at the start of the next game Nadal took it as an invitation to bear down. He duly did so against a momentarily distracted opponent and broke to fifteen for 3-1. There were signs that Federer was struggling a little on his movement to the forehand and he could not make an impression on the Nadal serve for the rest of the set. When they headed into a fifth set it was exactly 110 points all, with two hours and 36 minutes on the clock. Federer, who has always been sniffy about players taking lengthy medical timeouts, then took his second successive one (after the Wawrinka semi-final) for a duration of six minutes. It did not do him much good, as Nadal immediately broke in a high quality game that was ended when the Swiss sent an off forehand wide. If anything the quality of the match was going up at this point with the Spaniard’s forehand starting to fire as potently as you could remember it. But he started to back off on the shot in the sixth game and, with Federer muttering about the time being taken between points, the Swiss struck out to level for 3-3 with Nadal starting to miss. And then came the incredible denouement between two truly remarkable players, with Federer belying his age at the end.