Two respected veterans, two of the best players that the game of Tennis has ever seen clashing on the biggest of stages one more time. Not only for all the tennis enthusiasts but over the world it was a dream finale, but also for the two giants of the game who both are in the twilight of their careers.
When Federer became 30 in 2011, he began to slow down a bit compared to his previous few tournaments. Federer stunned the world with a Wimbledon victory in 2012, only to struggle for the next four years coming up short a couple of times in Grand Slam major tournaments, ending up as a finalist or a semi-finalist.
With Federer and Nadal ranked 17th and 9th respectively, a final between these two was not a sight that many tennis fans would have seen, or expected to see. But with top seeds, the Brit Andy Murray and the Serb Novak Djokovic crashing out of the tournament in the first week, the stars were aligned for a dream final between the two veterans who were sensing another shot at greatness.
Federer had not played a competitive tournament for six months due to an injury to his knee, while his counterpart Nadal had to cut short his 2016 season due to a wrist injury. A year ago, both these players would never have dreamt of reaching the Australian Open’s showdown.
The 35-year-old brushed aside the Czech Tomas Berdych in the second round of the Australian Open with a dominant display. The right-handed Swiss knocked Berdych off the court and overpowered him on the court, which is quite difficult to do against Berdych.
Soon, Federer faced the Japanese Nishikori who was not only as tough an opponent as Berdych but also defensively an upgraded version of the Czech. Nishikori’s movement across the court handed a problem or few on the court for the Swiss maestro. The Swiss maestro was well on his way to reaching another Grand Slam final.
Mischa Zverev, who had stunned the World, no 1 Andy Murray in four sets, was waiting to test the forehand and backhand of the Swiss. Federer had inflicted a double bagel 6-0 6-0 on the German.
Federer acknowledged the threat that the left-handed German could provide in the press conference. Former world no 1 brushed aside German Zverev 6-1 7-5 6-2 in three straight sets to continue his march to the final of the Australian Open.
It was nailed on that there would be a Swiss representative in the men’s final of the Australian Open. By defeating the Swiss Wawrinka, Federer would not only reach the final but also would be the oldest man to reach the final of any major since the 37-year-old Ken Rosewall’s appearance in the finals of the 1974 US Open.
It would be an incredible journey for the Swiss wizard, who recovered from the long layoff to make himself available for the tournament.
The odds were stacked against Federer, which only made his game better and his serve stronger. Federer made a total of 49 unforced errors, which are mere accidents comparing the magnitude of the game. He played majestically, carving the ball around the court with the backhand shots that took Wawrinka for a ride.
This game was also an ultimate test for Federer’s fitness on the court. Federer’s knee did not help the cause as he had to take a medical timeout between the crucial 4th and 5th set of the semi-final. Federer’s momentum eventually took him over the line and sealed the match that every tennis fan was eager to get hooked on.
Would the momentum and fortune continue for Federer in the final or would he succumb to pressure against his arch rival and nemesis Rafael Nadal?
Heading into Sunday’s final, the odds were stacked against Federer. The Swiss had a negative 11-23 win-loss record against the Spaniard, including a 2-6 in Grand Slam finals, and had not defeated Nadal in a best-of-five-sets match since winning the 2007 Wimbledon final.
The game was difficult for the Swiss at multiple levels, be it in terms of fitness or be it the Spaniard’s massive topspin forehands against the single- handed backhand of the Swiss.
The Spaniard’s natural game was more dominant than that of the Swiss’s, but for the Swiss, he had to go against his natural game and consistently serve well. Alongside first serve points, Federer also had to focus on getting more points at the net alongside taking the ball early against the left-hander.
The final match was a seesaw game of Federer, getting a service break to close out the first set 6-4 in 34 minutes and take the first set over his raging opposition. The first set saw both the players trying to limit the damage caused by each other’s forehand.
Nadal’s serve was broken with a pair of incredible shots from the Swiss maestro; the first one was a backhand which left the Spaniard clueless and the other an imperious forehand winner which saw him getting the first break of the match.
“Vamos! The Nadal battle-cry echoes around the stands; the answering call of ‘Come onnnnnn Roger’ is equally fervent.’’ Wrote Prem Panicker of Firstpost
The Spaniard began to take control over the second set with four games up in his sleeve in quick time. Federer’s determination did not allow the Spaniard to wrap up the game in straight games, breaking back to give Nadal some trouble in some strong rallies before conceding the 2nd set in 42 minutes.
Nadal’s form in the second set was not a very good sign for Federer and his camp, particularly Nadal’s cross court forehand which has always been an issue for Federer.
Federer began the third set in some rather nervy circumstances mixed with howlers and mortars in a ten-minute first game. The Swiss picked his game as the set proceeded with mesmerising forehand winners who left the Spaniard bamboozled and in a state of disarray.
Nadal’s attempts to hold the fort and stay in the game went in vain to some rather spectacular play from the Swiss maestro. Federer had an unmatchable 18 winners compared to the Spaniard’s meagre four winners which made his look convincing and invincible.
The world no. 9 did not let the third set get to his head and was far from done. A sizzling forehand winner across and down the line pushed him back into the game immediately. He immediately made use of the opportunities presented in terms of unforced errors from Federer to make it 4-1 and push the game to a fifth set.
40 minutes was more than enough for the Spaniard to push the game to the fifth and deciding set of the Australian Open Final. Federer’s problem with his knee was in the way between him and the elusive Australian Open title.
Nadal marched on and continued his trademark game to push the game away from the Swiss. Nadal, whipped his signature forehand across the court to seal an early break in the decider set of the game.
It was Federer’s turn this set as he pulled off a combination of some amazing serves and a set of tremendous forehands to rally back in the game at three apiece.
Nadal began to show signs of fatigue and an exhausted double fault in the final set started taking the game away from him. Federer weathered a storm of barraging shots and put through a set of grenades himself to put the game within his reach.
The consistency of Federer to extend long points and stayed on the offensive side helped him to frustrate and wear out the attack-minded Nadal.
A flat, hard down the line forehand was enough to flat foot Nadal and secure an unprecedented 18th Grand Slam major for the Swiss.
Never has Federer hit his topspin backhand as well as he did against Nadal in the Final. The Swiss brought his A game in service – 20 aces compared to Nadal’s 4 – and kept attacking forward which saw him finish with a 73% success rate at the net. Federer’s all-out attacking strategy paid dividends against his nemesis who had managed to break down his game his entire career.
The ecstatic crowd went berserk and haywire on witnessing what could be termed as “The best match in Federer’s career”
“I don’t think either of us believed we’d be in the finals,” Federer said afterwards before paying tribute to Nadal. “I’m happy for you. I would have been happy to lose, to be honest. The comeback was as perfect as it was.”
Nine years and many “obituaries” later, stop the presses: The king is back, and with him is his friend and relentless nemesis.
After the incredible battle between the two legends, it seemed like it was yesterday once more.