It had been four and a half years since he had last taken home a Grand Slam, and over a year since he had won any tournament at all. Six months had elapsed since he had played competitive tennis and ten years since he had beaten Rafael Nadal at a major. And yet… Roger Federer won his 18th Grand Slam in Melbourne, coming from a break down in the fifth set to defeat his arch rival 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3. At 35 years and six months, he also became the oldest player to win a major in almost half a century, since Ken Rosewall claimed the Australian Open crown in 1972.
Australian Open 2017 - Federer celebrates his 18th
Not one but two incredible comebacks occurred in this year’s men singles at the Australian Open – but there could be only one man standing in the winner’s circle in the Rod Laver Arena. And in Sunday’s final at Melbourne Park, Roger Federer was the stronger, the quicker and quite simply the more brilliant. The Maestro returned after six months away due to a serious knee injury, and dashed the hopes of his frenemy Rafael Nadal in an unbelievably intense, high-quality match. The Swiss won an incredible 18th Grand Slam title into the bargain, four years and six months after the previous one, at Wimbledon 2012. That may seem like an eternity in tennis terms, but with Federer at the top of his game at the age of 35, time has (once again) been made to stand still.
Last time Federer beat Nadal in a Grand Slam final : Wimbledon 20...07!
On paper, this clash of the titans had everything. Indeed, such was the public’s excitement ahead of the ninth Grand Slam final between Roger and Rafa – a record for two opponents in the men’s game – that the neighbouring Margaret Court Arena was opened up to spectators who were able to live this historic moment on a giant screen. And the match certainly lived up to its billing. Nadal was also making a return to the biggest of stages, at the age of 30 and after spending three months away from the circuit while his wrist healed. Federer therefore needed to choose his tactics wisely against a man who led their head-to-head 23-11, and whom he had not beaten at a Grand Slam since the Wimbledon final back in… 2007! The Swiss maestro needed to jump all over Nadal’s service and not allow him the time to settle, otherwise his crosscourt backhand would be met by a wall of defence in the shape of the Matador from Manacor’s formidable forehand. Easier said than done…
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And so they each gave it their best shot, over five sets. Rafa was Rafa. He looked a tad slower in his movements than in previous rounds, and his tireless running did not quite have the desired effect at the end of the rallies. Mentally, however, he was very much back to his best. And as was the case against Grigor Dimitrov in the semi-finals, his will power and concentration saw him pull away at the end of the match, as Federer began to struggle with the adductor muscle problem which, as was the case in the semis, saw him ask for a medical time-out so that he could get some treatment from the physio.
Exceptional champions can pull off exceptional feats, however, and what Federer managed in the fifth was nothing short of extraordinary. Having gone a break down at the outset of the decider, he began to exert all the pressure he could muster on Nadal, whose accuracy was beginning to fade. Despite being 2-0 then 3-1 down, Federer rattled off five games in a row, hitting winners each more amazing than the last and finishing the match off with a forehand that painted the line (6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3).
Federer won three five-set matches, and beat four Top 10 players en route to the title
The 2017 Australian Open will certainly be one of the most special of the Slams in the Swiss legend’s trophy cabinet. After his first-round victory over Jürgen Melzer, he adjudged that his comeback tournament was "already a success". What followed saw him become the first man since Mats Wilander at Roland-Garros in 1982 to beat four top 10 players en route to a Grand Slam title (Tomas Berdych – No.10 – in the third round, Kei Nishikori – No.5 – in the Round of 16, Stan Wawrinka – No.4 – in the semis, and No.9-ranked Rafa in the final).
This 18th Grand Slam title will go some way to erasing the memory of the three finals he has lost to Novak Djokovic since 2012, and for the first time in his career, Federer won three five-set matches. At the age of 35, no less. That he was able to achieve this can be put down to the way he has changed his game, making it more aggressive and attacking (coming to the net 40 times in the final and winning 29 points in the process). It is more “old school”, but with the sublime technique of a man who took yet another step towards justifying the tag of “Greatest of all time”. And since he told the Melbourne crowd that he would be back in 2018 to defend his crown, the only question now is to wonder just how far Roger Federer can keep pushing back the boundaries of tennis…