The greatest champions in almost every sport have endured battles where their legacy was on the line.
Think Bolt in Rio, or Phelps at the same Olympics. Pele’s Brazil at the 1970 World Cup, Jack Nicklaus at the 1986 Masters. Flo-Jo and Jackie at Seoul in ’88.
Ali in the Jungle.
On Saturday in Melbourne, Serena Williams lay claim to being the greatest champion in women’s tennis history by surpassing Steffi Graf’s Open Era record of 23 grand slam titles, beating sister Venus to record a famous victory. While the argument that it’s difficult to compare eras will always be valid, Serena is now the most decorated tennis player of all time and undoubtedly the best of her generation. There’s not really anything else an athlete can do.
While the G.O.A.T of women’s tennis is pretty much a closed case however, there was potentially some doubt over the equivalent status of Serena’s male counterparts going into Sunday’s men’s final. The last decade or so has often been referred to as the ‘Golden Age of Men’s Tennis’ and this generation has produced the most decorated men’s player of all time in Roger Federer. Yet depending on the outcome of events on court at Rod Laver Arena, Federer’s legacy as his sport’s ‘greatest ever’ was in the balance.
“It might be, as far as history goes, the biggest match ever in Australian Open history — and maybe grand slam history. What’s at stake there is beyond what pretty much any player can comprehend,” former US Open winner and new Hall-of-Fame inductee Andy Roddick said in an interview with the Telegraph last week, after the prospect of a Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal final at this year’s Australian Open suddenly became a real possibility.
“If you think of where they are at in terms of Federer being on 17 slams and Nadal on 14 slams, a Nadal win puts him back in the game, back in the conversation, narrowing the gap to 17-15 with the French Open (held on Nadal’s beloved clay) just around the corner,” Roddick added.
“A Federer win puts him on to 18 and I don’t know that there’s enough time left to make up that difference, and he would sit on that record for a long time. It’s literally game on for the most slams ever.”
“It might be, as far as history goes, the biggest match ever in Australian Open history — and maybe grand slam history. What’s at stake there is beyond what pretty much any player can comprehend.”
Standing between Federer and a long-awaited 18th grand slam was his biggest rival and the man who had been his chief tormentor for almost an entire career. As both men, Federer at 35 and Nadal approaching 31, brilliantly overcame the odds this past fortnight to set up a final conjured by destiny, the reminder of their thirty-four previous meetings weighed more heavily on the Swiss. In head-to-head competition, Nadal lead Federer 23-11.
Many would argue that you can’t be defined as the best in your sport’s history if you can’t beat the biggest rival in your era, but that’s also a simplistic view. Everyone has a weakness, even The Greatest, and there is always someone who has your number. Stylistically, Nadal is Federer’s Ken Norton and the fact that he also lays a reasonable claim to being his sport’s most meritorious augments his advantage in the match-up.
For much of the past five years, with Novak Djokovic’s rise to prominence and subsequent domination and more recently Andy Murray’s surge to topple Djokovic as world number one, the Federer-Nadal rivalry had been a sleeping giant. Talk of their 2005-2010 heyday became almost mythical, although a quick visit to YouTube would remind how their previous grand slam battles had come to transcend rackets.
They remained in the upper echelon of the men’s game but more often as challengers than champions and after both players suffered an injury-plagued 2016, they appeared ready to completely pass the torch to (slightly in Nadal’s case) younger competitors. That was at least until this Australian summer in Melbourne, where alongside the early exits of Murray and Djokovic, Federer and Nadal continually rolled back the years en-route to the championship match.
As illustrated by Roddick, the historical significance of this tennis match was the difference between Federer holding either a two or four slam advantage over Nadal in their career tallies. More importantly though, given Nadal’s unassailable lead in their head-to-head record, particularly in finals, what would it mean if, after all the unexpected greatness a 35-year-old Roger Federer had already produced, he still couldn’t get the better of the Spaniard when it really mattered?
This match was Federer’s chance to show the tennis world he could do the one thing that most thought he couldn’t after Wimbledon 2007; beat Rafael Nadal in a grand slam final.
Of course, it would go the full five sets.
The much eulogised reason for Nadal’s continued success against Federer over the years, was, according to the experts, his exploitation of Federer’s single-handed backhand by employing heavy topspin from his own left-handed forehand. Because of Federer’s grip on the racket and his technique for the shot, the Swiss fares much better when the ball arrives on his backhand side at a low, or even average height and with most top players these days being right-handed, they often hit their own backhand to this part of the court. With Nadal being a southpaw however, it’s his ferocious forehand that Federer has to deal with in that particular scenario and with the amount of topspin generated by the Spaniard, the ball kicks up so high that a stretching Federer often returns into the net, or tamely into the middle of the court for Nadal to hit home a clean winner.
But from early in this contest, Federer adopted a countering tactic that appeared to bring him more success on his backhand side. Rather than swat downward at the rising ball, he struck upward to loop it back over the net at Nadal, who then had to step back further from the baseline and thus conceded advantage in the rally.
It was fittingly then a Federer backhand that acted as catalyst for the decisive point of the first set, bringing up break point on Nadal’s serve with the score at three games apiece, before a trademark forehand winner fired Roger into a 4-3 lead. Federer would go on to take the set 6-4 after dominating his own service games, making 63% of his first serves and winning 93% of those points. He also hit thirteen winners, often coming in to the net and winning five of the seven points contested there. The set sealed in thirty-four minutes, most of the rallies had been short to Federer’s advantage.
While he had broken Nadal’s serve, it would be a much harder, if impossible act for Federer to break his opponent’s legendary spirit and the Mallorcan came back with a vengeance at the start of set two. Breaking twice, Nadal raced into a 4-0 lead. Perhaps in the first set he had been suffering the hangover of his efforts in the thrilling semi-final win over Grigor Dmitrov late on Friday, but now muscle memory had kicked in and reminded Nadal that this was a man that he didn’t lose to. Federer would get one break back, but Nadal took the second set 6-3.
As displayed since his return from knee surgery and the recurring back ailment that convinced Federer to have a six-month spell on the sidelines before this tournament, his ability to maintain his brand of ‘vintage’ tennis for five whole sets has waned, but he can still produce it in spots. That was the case in Federer’s fourth round encounter with Kei Nishikori, where the Swiss dipped in the fourth set but regained his levels for the fifth and more evidently in his semi-final with Stan Wawrinka, where, after surrendering a two-set lead to be level at 2-2, he rebounded again to take the decider.
Having pegged Federer back, momentum in this match was with Nadal at the beginning of the third set but Roger, having perhaps kept something in reserve after the second set had started to run away from him, moved up the gears to regain the initiative.
Federer scored a double break of his own to lead 5-1 and then served out the set to win it for the loss of just one game. If Rafa was going to come back and win this now, he would have to do it in five. Challenge accepted, said the Spaniard.
The 17-time grand slam winner was just one set away from that elusive number 18, but as Nadal saw it, he was just two away from a fifteenth. After Federer held his maiden service game of the fourth to 15, Nadal, serving first in the set, rushed through a comfortable hold for 2-1 and put the pressure right back on the Federer serve. With Herculean effort, Nadal extracted two Federer errors and then hit a booming forehand winner to earn three break points, the second of which he took when Federer netted a backhand volley. Fortune favoured the server thereafter which was enough to earn Nadal the fourth set 6-3.
Federer’s previous record against Nadal in five set matches was won three, lost eleven, but in those matches that had actually gone to a fifth set he was only down 2-3. The way that the pendulum had swung throughout this meeting, logic might have suggested that the decider would go in his favour to level that score. He had also taken what might be described as a tactical ‘medical time out’ to replenish some energy levels before the set, and would be serving first. But that logic went of the window when a relentless Nadal forced another two break points, converted the first one and then held to take a 2-0 lead.
Pressure was certainly on Federer to hold in the next game as a double break would surely have been fatal, but hold he did and then back at deuce on Nadal’s serve, there was a real opportunity to get the break back. Tennis’s elder statesman earned a break point with an eye-catching backhand winner down the line, but Nadal saved it with a backhand of his own and would hold once more.
Would Federer get another chance?
He would, when a forehand from Nadal sailed long for 30-40 with the Spaniard serving at 3-2 up. Nadal produced a more characteristic forehand to save break point for another deuce, but then Federer’s backhand, so often his Achilles Heel in their tussles of the past, brought about another break point and then just like it had in the first set, it changed the momentum. That looping backhand shot deep to the baseline forcing Nadal to reverse and thus conceding the impetus, Rafa sent another forehand wide. Federer had broken back.
Roger then emphatically held to love for a 4-3 lead and after he won the next three points for 0-40 on Nadal’s next service game, he had one hand on the title. Laver was on his feet. The partisan crowd, slightly more in favour of Roger than Rafa, held their breath. But this is Rafael Nadal. He promptly snatched Federer’s hand from the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup and put it back on his racket by valiantly saving all three break points. That was then swiftly followed by the point of the match, if not the championship.
Nadal put Federer on the ropes with a colossal backhand but the Swiss managed to send it back over the net at full stretch, and with terrific defending engineered the mêlée back onto his forehand side. The pair then exchanged blows for the length of what was ultimately a twenty-six shot rally, in which either man could, or should, have hit five or more winners, but it was Federer who finally did, pulling Nadal out wide and then wrong-footing his opponent by placing a forehand down the opposite flank of an open court. Break point again, but Nadal saved again with a mammoth serve down the middle. Was this 2007, or 2017?
Finally, at the fifth break point of asking, Federer’s doggedness paid off. The backhand again, this one sent low across the court, was too much for Nadal who could only swat a forehand against the net post. Roger Federer was serving for his 18th grand slam title.
Yet even the final game could not be straightforward, and Federer’s support groaned as Nadal made his fans roar when he took a 0-30 lead, then went up 15-40. Federer saved the first break point with an ace but then netted a first serve, the second serve point produced a tense rally where Nadal looked in command. Then Federer somehow produced an inside-out forehand winner for deuce and a Nadal forehand went long to give Federer Championship Point. He double-faulted, at least the second serve was called out, but Federer successfully challenged as the ball had caught the line and he had the point again. Another deuce. Then another ace, another championship point. Another forehand from Federer is called out but another challenge, an agonizing wait for Hawkeye and…. IT’S IN!
6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 and at the grand old age (in relative terms) of 35, Roger Federer had his fifth Australian Open title, and his 18th grand slam.
In doing so, Federer likely sets a record that will be un-catchable by Nadal and the other all-time great of this era, Djokovic (12 slams). Each of those men will celebrate another birthday between now and the conclusion of the next grand slam tournament at Roland Garros. However, if Federer and the Williams’ Sisters have reminded us of anything this past fortnight, it’s that great tennis players can continue to add to their legacy well into their thirties.
As it currently stands though, for longevity if not for his other achievements Federer must now be regarded as the Greatest Of All Time. In addition to his record number of slams, his 237 consecutive weeks as the world number one may never be broken, even if someone manages to overhaul his 302 total weeks at the summit.
Then there’s his other records; most grand slam finals (28), most semi-finals (41) and quarters (49), most grand slam match wins (314) and now the first man to win three of tennis’s four major championships on at least five occasions (along with Wimbledon and the US Open). At his peak, Federer also put together a record 36 consecutive grand slams where he at least made the quarter finals. Nine straight years in the last eight or better at every grand slam tournament. He also holds a record six ATP World Tour Finals trophies to boot.
The next generation, the Dimitrovs and Raonics, are already into their mid-twenties without a grand slam title to their name. Unless someone like young Alexander Zverev can dominate what will soon be a comparably weaker era, the majority of Federer’s records will stand for a very long time.
And even if Federer’s records are eventually breached, there is one element of the history made on Sunday that will never be equaled. Federer vs Nadal is the greatest rivalry in men’s tennis history, and one of the greatest in sporting history, yet the bond that the two rivals, but friends, share is an example to every sport.
“There are no draws in tennis, but I would have been happy to share one with Rafa tonight,” Roger said in his on-court interview after Laver had presented him with the title.
“Keep playing Rafa, please. Tennis needs you. Thank you for everything you do.”