Australian Open 2017: Roger Federer rolls back years with Rafa Nadal to win emotional 18th Grand Slam
The 17th seed wins his 18th Grand Slam title after a thrilling five-set victory over his old foe in the Australian Open final
There are rivalries, and then there are rivalries that define an era.
On final Saturday at this year’s Australia Open, one of the signature and most significant rivalries in women’s tennis was played out for the 28th time between sisters Serena and Venus Williams. Serena won, as she had done so often, but the fact that they had made it to the final match in a Grand Slam for the 15th time was enough for their many admirers.
The very next day, the men’s rivalry of the 21st century would complete this remarkable weekend of evergreen players and evergreen rivalries in a remarkable 35th playing of the charismatic double act between 17-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer and 14-time champion Rafael Nadal.
For while Federer has actually played Novak Djokovic more often than he has Nadal—45 times—and Nadal has the most prolific rivalry of recent years with Djokovic—49—no other match-up has managed to capture the magic of ‘Rafa and Roger’.
It comes down, perhaps, to their multitude of contrasts. Federer’s effortless, elegant, all-court skill, his balletic footwork, his one-handed backhand, and his slender, angular good looks have stood in vivid opposition to the power-house, blood-on-the-court, bristling muscularity and baseline majesty of the young, handsome Spaniard.
Certainly many have tried to pin down just what has captured the imagination, but in part, it is the balance of the match-up itself. Just when Federer seemed unbeatable, reigning at No1 for an unbroken four and a half years, the left-handed man from Mallorca beat him at Wimbledon in 2008, overtook him in Masters titles in 2010, and built a substantial head-to-head advantage.
And for all that Federer had won more hard-court titles than anyone else—80 and counting—and had won four Australian titles to Nadal’s one, he found himself on the losing side against his rival in all three of their Melbourne matches. Indeed as they prepared to meet in their first Major final for six years, they knew that Nadal had won five of their last six matches dating back almost five years.
Yes, Nadal had been a thorn in Federer’s side, yet off court, the garrulous, extrovert Swiss and the more shy and quietly-spoken Spaniard had grown into friends. Both had injury-blighted 2016 seasons, yet they came together in Mallorca in October for the opening of the Nadal’s tennis academy with genuine appreciation for one another.
Federer: “I think I’m probably the No1 fan of Rafa, I think his game is just tremendous. And an incredible competitor… I went to open his Academy. I was on one leg, he had a wrist injury, and we were playing mini tennis with some juniors, and we were like, ‘This is the best we can do right now!’ Few months later, we may be in the same final here.”
Nadal: “For me it’s a privilege, a very, very special thing—I think for both of us. I was with him in the opening of my Academy—and thank you to him for that amazing moment. We were supposed to play an exhibition match, and he had an injury with his knee and me with my wrist, so finally we just played some shots with the kids. We never expected to be here in the final of the Australian Open, so I think we feel very happy.”
Both freely admitted that they had exceeded expectations so soon after returning from rehabilitation: Federer seeded No17 and forced through a draw that brought three top-10 battles—winning against Nos 4 and 5 in five-setters; Nadal seeded No9 and beating four other seeds, including No3 Milos Raonic.
And after a couple of seasons dominated by Andy Murray and Djokovic, even the most informed tennis fan could not have anticipated this—not least because Federer will be 36 in August, Nadal 31 in June.
For many, many reasons, then, the anticipation of one more Major title bout had built to fever pitch by the time these two men walked onto court. They and the match would not disappoint, for this would go all the way to the wire.
Federer, as he had the whole fortnight, put himself on the line with aggressive, fast tennis from the outset. It is a style that produces many winners but also many errors, while Nadal’s powerful, left-handed ‘percentage’ game has managed always to expose Federer’s relative weakness, his extreme backhand wing.
Nadal opened with a love hold, the Spaniard’s serve perhaps the most improved area of his tennis in recent years. Federer broke out his net attack in the fourth game, but it was a down-the-line backhand that won the game—perhaps his most improved shot since his long stint with Stefan Edberg.
Two love holds took them to 3-3, but now Federer unleashed that backhand again, pushing Nadal wide for break point, and an attacking one-two forced a Nadal forehand wide for the break, 4-3. Another love hold from Federer made it 5-3 and he closed out the set with an ace, 6-4.
Federer’s attack continued in the second, coming the net on Nadal’s opening first serve, but Nadal countered with his own net play, and held with an ace.
A first double fault in the second game opened the way for Nadal to pummel to break point, and his tried and trusted play high to the Federer backhand converted for 2-0. The Swiss had a chance to break straight back, but two forehand errors snuffed it out. A lunging Federer volley, then a smash, brought another break chance, but Nadal’s looping forehands to right and then left drew the desired errors and a hold, 3-0.
Nadal’s grip from the baseline, starting three metres back, continued to wreak havoc and he broke again to love, 4-0. Federer stemmed the flow with some free hitting to pull one break back, but Nadal reasserted himself with a love hold and went on to serve out the set, again to love, 6-3.
Federer was on a knife-edge at the start of the third, as Nadal pulled him back from 40-0 to deuce. A dire Federer forehand error, and it was break point to Nadal, saved by an ace—as was a second, and a third. It took seven minutes for Federer to hold, but it boosted his confidence, and he stepped in to take Nadal’s serve early, made a couple of searing forehand winners, and broke for 2-0.
A love hold was followed by another full-on attack from Federer in the fourth, but Nadal resisted three break points to hold after eight minutes.
Federer, though, did not waver, and held to love, 4-1. His backhand was proving the star of the show: He zipped a blocked return at Nadal’s feet to break for 5-1. A couple of tight errors, including a double fault for break point, were countered by more bold attacks, and the Swiss sealed the set with a deft volley winner: 6-1.
No quarter was given at the start of Set 4, but a loose service game, including two poor forehand errors, gave Nadal the break in the fourth. Federer was up to 40 errors to Nadal’s 19, and he could only applaud a stunning Nadal cross-court winner to conclude a glorious rally, 4-1. Nadal was in full flow now, and two love holds did the job, 6-3.
The signs were not good for Federer: Nadal had the momentum and bristled with confidence, while Federer took an off-court medical time out. The Spaniard sensed his chance to break in the first game of the decider, and fought off three break-back chances in the next with some fine serving, 2-0. Federer’s error count was up to 54, but after a love hold and more massage to his right thigh, he would make just three more.
The men were locked at 122 points each, and Federer continued to attack, opening chances with some stunning backhand blocks and drives through the court. He would work nine break points before converting as Nadal played clutch points at every threat, but finally the Swiss broke in the sixth game, 3-3, and held to love with an ace.
Almost for the first time, Nadal looked tight, and double faulted for 0-40. As before, he levelled with clutch serving but the longest rally of the match, 26 strokes, brought up another chance, and Federer angled a wide backhand return of serve: 5-3.
With his back against the wall, Nadal always finds his best, and he did again, taking Federer to 15-40, but the Swiss breathed deeply, made an ace and a forehand winner, challenged an ‘out’ call, and seized the victory at the second time of asking with winner number 73, 6-3.
It had looked, right to the bitter end, as though Nadal would deny Federer again, but the Swiss man was unshaken in his tactical focus, and it paid off: He had an 18th Grand Slam, four and a half years after his last.
Not since 1982 has a man won a Major via four top-10 victories. Federer’s will take him back to the top 10 himself tomorrow.
It seemed entirely appropriate that Australia’s favourite son, Rod Laver—who had sat courtside for all of Federer’s matches—should present the trophy in the resounding Rod Laver arena. It seemed equally appropriate that this 100th Australian Open match should make Federer the first man to win five or more titles at three different Majors.
But the match would have been the poorer without that special relationship between the combatants, summed up in Federer’s emotional acceptance speech thus:
“Tennis is a tough sport. There are no draws, but if there was going to be one, I would have been very happy to accept one tonight… I would have been happy to lose, too, the comeback was perfect as it was. I would’ve been happy to accept a draw tonight and share it with Rafa.”
With that, he thanked, waved, and said he hoped to be back, “but if not, it was a wonderful run here.”
It was another first: an ‘if not’ that suggested for the first time that the end of his illustrious career may be just over the horizon. As he said, this would be a memorable way to finish, against his nemesis, but also his greatest rival.