While the great Roger Federer has strung together Grand Slam triumphs like pearls on a thread over the course of his unrivalled career, two of his 18 major titles were savoured with particular relish: Roland-Garros 2009 and the 2017 Australian Open. As the Swiss himself has admitted, as the hardest-fought of his crowns, these two were also the most emotional of his victories.
Roger Federer: "I can't compare this one to any other one except Roland-Garros in 2009"
"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, yeah." Asking Roger Federer to pick a favourite from among his 18 Grand Slam titles would be a heart-wrenching, and in all likelihood impossible-to-answer, question. While he has cemented his place in history with this towering tally, the fact is that each of these 18 crowns has its own distinct story behind it, and the Swiss would have a hard time singling one out. Nevertheless, when it comes to which of these victories tasted the sweetest, the maestro has made his feelings clear. After all, the tenor of a triumph is defined by the difficulties and failures that precede it. In that regard, it is easy to see why Roland-Garros 2009 and the 2017 Australian Open have special significance in the eyes of the men's Grand Slam record-holder.
From the favourite who couldn't afford to lose at Roland-Garros in 2009…
During a glittering journey in which precious little has eluded him, these two conquests stand out precisely because of their elusiveness. Roland-Garros looked for all the world like it would go down as the one that got away from Federer, and all because of one man: Rafael Nadal. In four straight years (the 2005 semi-finals and the 2006, 2007 and 2008 finals), "Rafa" denied "Roger" access to the pantheon reserved for career Grand Slam winners, seemingly condemning the Swiss to the same fate as Pete Sampras: forever having his exploits met with the rejoinder "But he never won Roland-Garros". However, Federer's victory in Paris in 2009 elevated him into a new realm, and it was from this point onwards that he began to be seriously considered as a contender for the title of the greatest player of all time.
The events at the Porte d'Auteuil in 2009 were also telling inasmuch as they underscored that this genius accustomed to outclassing opponents in style was also capable of rolling up his sleeves, winning ugly and conquering adversity. In this instance, he delivered despite the overwhelming pressure and his own erratic play, two factors offset by the unwavering support of the crowd (even when he was up against Frenchmen!) and an inspired tactical switch-up which saw him restore the drop shot's lustre by putting it at the centre of his arsenal. The high drama on display over the course of a breathtaking fortnight, in which Federer could easily have lost at least three of his matches, accentuated by the increased hype because of his previous failures and the weight of history, made that Roland-Garros one of the pinnacles of his career.
Roger Federer - Juan Martin del Potro, Roland-Garros 2009 semi-finals: the highlights
The 2017 Australian Open will go down as another for the same reasons. Indeed, there are some striking parallels between the two tales. The wait between Federer's first outing at Roland-Garros as world number one and that crowning moment on 7 June 2009 stretched for some five years. The interval between his 17th major title, Wimbledon 2012, and this year's Aussie tour de force was practically the same. And, just like the Swiss endured three Roland-Garros final defeats before going all the way in Paris, he also lost three major finals between lifting Grand Slam numbers 17 and 18. Consequently, each of these unforgettable, largely unexpected runs to glory began mired in the same doubts. In the Swiss ace's own words, "It was difficult to come into press conferences and say, 'It'll come', because at a certain point, no one believes you any more."
... to the outsider who had everything to gain at the 2017 Australian Open
Given the strides made by Rafa between the Roland-Garros 2008 final and the eve of the 2009 edition, not to mention the bruising Nadal-Novak Djokovic tussles en route to that year's French Open, very few people gave Federer much chance of running out victorious in Paris. Similarly, considering where the Swiss was coming from heading into the 2017 season, having spent six months on the sidelines with a knee injury, most observers would have required a leap of faith and the imagination to envisage that two weeks later, at the grand age of 35, he would become the second-oldest Grand Slam winner in the Open era, behind only Ken Rosewall's 1972 feat Down Under (an achievement which, with no disrespect to a great champion, cannot be placed on the same footing because it came at a time when the game was less physical and the Australian Open did not attract all the top players).
Read more: Roger Federer celebrates his 18th
However, what sets the greats apart is their ability to keep believing even when everything seems stacked against them, as perfectly encapsulated by these two historic Federer triumphs. There is, nevertheless, one big difference between them. In 2009, the maestro struggled over the finish line as the heavy favourite after Nadal's fourth-round exit had paved his way to the title. It was an opportunity he simply could not afford to pass up. In 2017, on the other hand, the Swiss went into a series of meetings with top-ten players billed as the underdog. This explains the sense of freedom with which he was able to take to the court and so the quality tennis he was able to produce down the home stretch in Melbourne, including against Rafa, so often his tormentor in the past.
Read more: Rafael Nadal, Roland-Garros King of kings
"Novak has been one of my biggest rivals. So have [Andy] Roddick and [Lleyton] Hewitt. I don't like to leave anybody out, to be honest. I am sure I have left a couple out. But Rafa definitely has been very particular in my career," Federer was quick to acknowledge. "He made me a better player… because of the way his game stacks up with me. It's a tricky one. It remains the ultimate challenge for me to play against him. So it's definitely very special. I said that also before the finals: 'If I were to win against Rafa, it would be super-special and very sweet' because I haven't [hadn't] beaten him in a Grand Slam final for a long, long time. Last time, I guess, was 2007 at Wimbledon in a five-setter."
Special indeed, and every other superlative you can think of. Because when Federer insisted in early 2009, shortly after his loss to that man Nadal in the Australian Open final, that he still believed he had a shot at winning Roland-Garros, it seemed far-fetched. It seemed altogether utopic, however, when, in the run-up to returning to action in Australia at the beginning of 2017, the Swiss announced that he still had ambitions of winning an 18th Grand Slam. Yet now these two achievements stand apart as the two most memorable successes in the legend's extraordinary career.
From 2009, when Federer became the greatest of all times, to 2017, when he consolidates his status against his biggest foe