Federer’s finest hour

By Matt Roberts

Even for Roger Federer, these were two remarkable weeks. Thirty-five years of age, in his first tournament for six months and seeded seventeenth with a merciless draw, nobody gave him a title shot.

Well into his 30s, Federer has been playing great tennis for years (working backwards, his recent Grand Slam record now reads W SF SF F F), but his body had started to fail him. Andy Roddick always says that “father time is undefeated”, and he’s right. Just last year, Federer required surgery for the first time in his career to fix an injured knee. He was forced to watch from the side-lines as his younger rivals swept the slams and his ranking dropped considerably.

But with four kids, Federer continues to defy logic, precedent and that number they call age. He continues to set new standards for consistency, popularity and longevity.

Back in December, via a Periscope livestream of a practice session in Dubai, he gave us a peek at how he still does it. It was a high-tech affair – microphones, high-definition, multiple camera angles – and it was revealing. You’d think after nineteen glittering years on tour that Federer would find training unfulfilling.  Yet here he was, brimming with the joy of hitting tennis balls and giggling like a schoolboy as he aimed his practice serves at his fitness trainer. It’s the love for the sport that keeps Federer motivated.

And so to Melbourne, where Federer arrived fresh but match-light. The first two rounds were scrappy and his game appeared full of rust as he lost a set to Jurgen Melzer and laboured against World No.200 Noah Rubin.

Then Novak Djokovic went out. The 6-time ruler of this event, beaten by wildcard Denis Istomin. Immediately, the whole feel of the tournament changed. It was a seismic upset, and its tremors would be felt for days as Djokovic’s absence left a chasm in the draw. From that moment, Federer played like he sensed an opening. And why wouldn’t he? Djokovic has been an immovable object in Federer’s late-career, thwarting him four times at slams since 2014. With the Serb gone, Federer’s stock rose.

Contrasting wins in rounds three (masterfully over Tomas Berdych) and four (defiantly over Kei Nishikori) got people fantasising. And whisper turned to chatter when Andy Murray, Federer’s projected quarter-final opponent, followed Djokovic out of the tournament, toppled by Mischa Zverev. Something was in the air and the Fed Express was beginning to pick up speed.

Federer made light work of Zverev in the last eight and came through his second five-setter over Stan Wawrinka in the semi-finals. His body was aching but his level of tennis wasn’t dropping.

In the final, it was Rafael Nadal. Of course it was. It had to be. With the Williams sisters contesting the women’s final, this was the ultimate rewind slam.

Federer and Nadal are irrefutably linked, for theirs has been the era-defining rivalry of a sport-defining era. When they play, there’s a global appeal. Tennis is at its best when there’s contrast, and no duet does contrast better than Federer and Nadal. It’s right vs left, grace vs force, slice vs topspin, attack vs defence. Nadal is the weight to Federer’s lightness. They’ve denied each other and improved each other. They play against each other and also with each other, producing the most stylish, aesthetic movements and rallies.

They hadn’t met in a slam for three years, and it was almost six since they contested their last slam final together. As recently as last October, when Federer visited Mallorca to open Nadal’s academy, the suggestion of another major final between the pair would have been absurd. On that day, owing to injury, they had to settle for a game of mini-tennis.

There was nothing mini about Sunday. In fact it was probably the most hyped match in tennis history.

For four sets, it was a puzzling encounter. It ebbed and flowed, with the pair peaking at different times. Still, there was plenty to remind us of why we cherish the match-up. There was Nadal’s vintage pattern of peppering the Federer backhand. There were Federer’s exciting ventures forward. There were Nadal’s passing shots. There were Federer’s aces – notably, and crucially, three of them consecutively on the Ad-side to fend off break points early in the third set.

Federer’s play in particular fluctuated between the divine and the ordinary, as he made winning points look simultaneously effortless and impossible. Significantly, when he missed, he missed well. For all of Dimitrov’s fine play against Nadal in their epic semi-final tussle, the Bulgarian had played into Nadal’s hands by engaging in lengthy rallies. Federer watched that and took note. Short and sharp was going to be his mantra.

After a speedy 2h 37m we found ourselves in a fifth set. The match was being played at Federer’s pace, but not always on his terms. He had to take a medical timeout for a massage, and when Nadal broke serve in the opening game of the decider, the road back looked ominously bleak.

Nadal’s game is a pest for Federer, almost as though it was engineered to disrupt his flow, and crucially the Spaniard has always had the mental edge too. He’s scrambled Federer’s mind and it’s won him matches. Every time they play, Federer carries the weight of that lopsided head-to-head.

But with momentum and history against him on Sunday, Federer’s thinking remained clear. At the start of the fifth set in the semi-final against Wawrinka, Federer had ordered himself to “let it fly off your racquet and see what happens”. The approach paid off, and he adopted a similar one here. “I told myself to play free, up the court”, Federer said afterwards. “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.” Federer’s ‘box of ways to beat you’ is the fullest the game’s ever seen, but against Nadal simplicity is key. Attack is the best form of defence, or something similar. And so Federer attacked.

Federer’s stubbornness has long been friend and foe, but in recent years he’s embraced the adjustments required to hang with his younger peers. The decision to change racquet in 2014, to one with a larger head size, was risky. But we saw its rewards on Sunday. Federer hit over his backhand and drove his returns with previously unseen regularity, 87 times out of 91 to be exact, and it held sway. The fast court honoured Federer’s assertiveness, and he had the foundation for a comeback.

But Nadal was playing well now, too, striking the ball with conviction and upping the duration and volume of his grunts. The match had been building to a crescendo and this was it. And so began a thrilling hour that sits alongside any of their previous masterpieces.

‘Federer and Break Points’ has always been a tale of loss and agony, particularly against Nadal. And for two Nadal service games in the fifth set, it felt painfully familiar. Federer struck with pace and precision to create the openings, but Nadal stood firm each time. The Mallorcan thrives under adversity, and he did so again on Sunday. Despite a near 5-hour semi-final, the consensus was that length and physicality would favour Nadal. As the minutes ticked by, surely Federer’s exploits would catch up with him?

But too often we swoon at Federer’s elegance and forget his fight. The final five games – arguably the most brilliant stretch of his career – was an exemplar of the two in perfect tandem. And what a glorious sight it was. Federer would go on to say that he wouldn’t have minded if he’d lost, that being healthy and playing again was enough. But his eyes in the fifth set were at odds with that statement. He wanted this, and he went to get it.

First came the break back, then the swift hold-to-love to move 4-3 ahead, and then the best game of the match. Federer rushed to a 0-40 lead. Nadal levelled with a fusillade of forehands. And at deuce, a 26-shot rally that was more ping-pong than tennis, such was its speed. Both players refused to budge from the baseline in an exchange full of half-volley pick-ups and culminating with a clean forehand winner at full-stretch from Federer. It was preposterous and it would lead to a break of serve. Federer had won four games on the spin and now he was serving for the title.

The end, when it came, was sporting theatre. First, Federer was forced to save two Nadal break points, which he did with an ace and a forehand winner. He then blew a championship point on an unforced error before setting up another with a swinging ace. Federer has always been a Hawkeye-sceptic, but he might now be a convert. The technology confirmed that his cross-court forehand had struck the line. And with that, Federer had achieved arguably his greatest ever feat, certainly his most unlikely. The joy came pouring out; from the man himself, from his team and from all believers in the Faith of Federer. He’d beaten his nemesis and won an improbable, memorable, untouchable 18th slam.

As always with Federer, the numbers tell a vivid story: he’s the first player since Mats Wilander in 1982 to win a slam by beating four Top-10 seeds, it was the first time in his career he won three 5-setters in the same tournament and he has now won three of the slams on at least five occasions.

Time will tell whether this was a wondrous one-off or a prelude to more. While Nadal will have a chance at Roland Garros, and Federer at Wimbledon, one suspects we’ll look back on the Australian Open 2017 as their last match in a grand slam final.

For this reason, and many others, this was a tournament to savour. For two weeks, the clocks went back in tennis. We switched on an old album, rediscovered the magic and fell back in love. As we basked in the bliss of attacking tennis, how fitting that Federer, both innovator and survivor of this trend, should prevail. On any given day he continues to play tennis no one else can, or ever will. He still floats, his wrist still snaps compellingly, his head still stays perfectly still at impact and his game still preaches purity and hypnotises his followers. And with his Wilson wand, he just performed his greatest trick yet.

Photograph: Wikimedia commons

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