Rivalry renewed! Roger Federer had not beaten Rafael Nadal in a Grand Slam match in over nine years, and early in the fifth it looked like the trend would continue with Nadal up a break in a see-saw Australian Open final Sunday. But Federer authors one of his best spurts of his career winning the last five games of the match to win the title 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3.
“I told myself to play free,” Federer said. ‘That’s what we discussed with Ivan and Severin before the matches. You play the ball, you don’t play the opponent. Be free in your head, be free in your shots, go for it. The brave will be rewarded here. I didn’t want to go down just making shots, seeing forehands rain down on me from Rafa. I think it was the right decision at the right time.”
The wins was Federer’s first title at a Grand Slam since 2012 Wimbledon and his first at the Australian Open since 2010. And it boosted his Grand Slam title count to 18, tying him with women’s greats Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.
And it denied Nadal a second Career Slam, which some argued would have given Nadal supreme reign over Federer in the GOAT debate.
Both players had come off 5-set semifinals with Nadal’s a near 5-hour gripping epic against Grigor Dimitrov on Friday. But Federer had the extra day off and early on he came out of the blocks quicker during the 3-hour, 37-minute battle, breaking Nadal at 3-3. And he raced away with the first set.
Nadal began to assert his gameplan in the second set. He served better and began really whipping the forehand, creating errors from Federer. A quick break gave Nadal a 2-0 lead and not soon after it was 4-0. The set was in hand, momentum had changed to Nadal.
With Rafa surging, looking back it may have been the pivotal game the first game of the third set. Nadal had three break points but each one erased with a Federer ace. Had Nadal broke, might he have continued his run? Instead, the disappointment of those missed opportunities carried into the next game and Nadal was broken. Federer was back in control and he never let go scoring a 6-1 set behind 18 winners and just four points lost on first serve.
Federer had regained the lead, but it wouldn’t last long.
A missed volley to start the fourth re-opened the door for Nadal. And that was all he needed. As Federer began to show signs of two 5-set matches and three Top 10 wins in his first tournament in six months, Nadal ramped up the ground game and he lost just seven points on serve in the set.
Dead even, Federer left the court to get treatment for an adductor injury. The 8-minute or so delay did not slow Nadal down as he immediately broke Federer then held for 2-0. The trainer was out again for Federer but a frustrated-looking Federer shrugged him off. With Nadal in form and Federer reeling, it looked like an impossible task for Federer to get back in the match.
Nadal held for 3-1 and then in his next service game he had chances to go up 4-2. The break was got Federer back to level at 3-3 and Federer would never look back, putting together one of the best runs of his career winning the last five games of the match to take the victory, the title and an 18th Grand Slam.
“I had opportunities early on in the fifth, as well, to get back on even terms,” Federer said. “I could have been left disappointed there and accepted that fact. I kept on fighting. I kept on believing, like I did all match long today, that there was a possibility I could win this match.
“I think that’s what made me play my best tennis at the very end the match, which was actually surprising to me. I went through a little bit of a lull in the fourth and the beginning of the fifth set.”
Nadal, who was appearing in his first Grand Slam final since his 2014 French Open championship, said he gave all he had but Federer was too good in the end.
“I had some chances in the fifth with break up,” Nadal said. “But is true that after I had the break, he played very aggressive, hitting a lot of great shots. So was tough to hold the serve every time. I had the chance to keep holding the serve. If I hold that one, you never know. You are two games, just two games away. But I didn’t, so…
“Well, that’s it. I believe that he played super aggressive during the whole match. Tough chances to play the way I wanted to play. But still like this, I played, I think, with the right attitude, trying to do my things, fighting for every ball.”
The loss sets up Federer and Nadal for the rest of the season, and Rafa is now particularly excited for another deep French Open run.
“I cannot predict what’s going on in the future,” Nadal said. “That’s always the same thing. I just think that I am playing well. I just think that I worked hard to be where I am. I believe that playing like this, good things can happen. Can happen here in this surface, but especially can happen on clay.”
Federer was more shocked by what happened.
“We’re both on a comeback,” Federer said. “It would have been nice for both of us to win, but there’s no draws in tennis. It’s brutal sometimes.
“He should be happy. I would have been happy again to be in the finals,” he added. “I think this one will take more time to sink in. When I go back to Switzerland, I’ll think, Wow.
“The magnitude of this match is going to feel different. I can’t compare this one to any other one except for maybe the French Open in ’09. I waited for the French Open, I tried, I fought. I tried again and failed. Eventually I made it. This feels similar.”
Nadal still has a big lead in their head-to-head leading 23-12 and 6-3 in Slam finals (9-3 overall in Slams), but at 35 Federer showed he’s not done yet.
The title run by Federer was among his best, and for the first time he beat four Top 10 players and won three five-set matches en route to a Grand Slam championship.
He finished his 100th career Australian Open match and 5th title in Melbourne with 20 aces and 75 winners with 14 off a backhand side that may have never been better against Nadal.
“I’m out of words,” Federer said on court. “I’d like to congratulate Rafa on an amazing comeback. There are no draws in tennis, but I would have been very happy to accept one and share it with Rafa tonight. The comeback had been perfect as it was.”
And fittingly, the man who labeled the Australian Open the “Happy Slam” is the one who leaves the happiest.
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