Over a decade, Rafael Nadal has been the eternal problem of Roger Federer. Reaching 35 years-old, the Swiss could finally execute his game plan the way he wanted, in a five-setter thriller to reach the 18th Grand Slam win.
How the final was won - Federer bests nemesis Nadal with brilliant back-court display
When Grigor Dimitrov sent a backhand long and Rafael Nadal collapsed onto the blue surface of Rod Laver Arena, the Spaniard was not the only one celebrating. Around the world, tennis fans rejoiced – a Nadal v Roger Federer final had been set at Australian Open 2017.
Two of the greatest players the sport had seen, and the architects of one of its most notable rivalries, would meet in a Grand Slam final for the first time in almost six years. The last time came at Roland-Garros in 2011.
After the initial excitement, suddenly, everyone remembered: this was not a good match up for Federer.
In the years since they first met in 2004, Nadal had spun his vicious left-handed forehand repeatedly at Federer’s one-handed backhand and reaped the benefits. Nadal led their head-to-head 6-2 in major finals, 9-2 in Grand Slam meetings, 3-0 in Australia and 23-11 overall. Federer had not beaten Nadal at a Grand Slam event in almost a decade.
All of that context and history made Federer’s 6-4 3-6 6-1 3-6 6-3 victory – a fabulous spectacle that was the third-most watched tennis match in Australian television history – over his nemesis all the more incredible. It delivered him an 18th Grand Slam title. His first major trophy in four-and-a-half years. An even greater claim to the oft-debated title of Greatest Of All Time.
And it was helped enormously by his backhand, which held up perhaps better than it ever had in 13 years of facing the Spaniard across the net.
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According to Tennis Australia’s Game Insight Group (GIG), Federer utilised the width of the court much better in this final than in his previous Australian Open matches against Nadal in 2012 and 2014. In their 2014 semifinal, which Federer lost in straight sets, the Swiss hit less than half his backhands to the “wide zone” – near the sidelines – while an equivalent amount landed in the “central short” zone – the middle of the court, three metres or more from the baseline. Yet in 2017, almost 60 percent of his backhands were directed to the wide zone, and he hit significantly more backhand winners in this region of the court compared with 2012 and 2014.
GIG also found that Federer’s backhand was superior to Nadal’s throughout all five sets of their 2017 final in terms of “shot quality” – a marker assessing the depth, speed and accuracy of all backhands hit during the match. This was the only time this had occurred in their three Australian Open meetings.
Federer finished the match with 14 backhand winners and had many marvelling at the pace and angle he achieved as well as his ability to take the stroke early – off a punishing Nadal forehand – without getting pushed off the baseline.
Federer's all backhand winners in the Australian Open final
But the backhand wing wasn’t the only area in which he was succeeding. As Carl Bialik, writer and quantitative editor at ESPN's FiveThirtyEight tweeted, Federer won 150 points – 73 on winners, 49 by forcing Nadal errors and 28 on Nadal unforced errors. Looking at particular stats like his 20 aces and 29 of 40 points won at net, it was clear that Federer was sticking to his typically aggressive game plan.
"Be free in your head, be free in your shots, go for it, the brave will be rewarded here"
Only this time, he executed it better than ever against Nadal.
“I told myself to play free,” he said, after recovering from 3-1 down in the final set. “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 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.”
Federer’s entire tournament was surprising. After scratching his way past two qualifiers, he faced a horror draw in which, as the 17th seed, he had to go through Tomas Berdych, Kei Nishikori and reigning US Open champion Stan Wawrinka before lining up against Nadal. Navigating that path saw him become the first player in almost 35 years to win a Grand Slam tournament with victories over four top-10 ranked opponents.
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Nadal could only tip his hat. “Is true that after I had the break, he played very aggressive, hitting a lot of great shots,” he said. “I believe that he played super aggressive during the whole match. Tough chances to play the way I wanted to play. I didn't play bad. But is true was difficult to play a lot because he really went for the shots, almost for every shots.
“He put a lot of balls in, taking a lot of risks, and taking the ball very early, playing very fast. So then he had the success.”
Although Federer continue to play a reduced schedule, the 35-year-old revealed some thrilling news for French fans – he’s planning a return to Roland-Garros for the first time in two years after missing last year’s tournament.
"I don't see myself skipping the French"
“Because now we have an extra week on the grass, so I don’t see myself skipping the French (Open),” he told AAP.
“My goal needs to be to stay healthy. So when I do go on court that, really, it’s a highlight. I know you can’t make 25 tournaments a highlight, but you can make 15 a highlight and really be well prepared for those and enjoy it in the process.
“I have a month now until the tournament in Dubai comes around. So that’s going to give me some time to reflect and see how I will attack the rest of the season.”
Now back inside the top 10 and a reigning major champion once more, Federer has re-established himself as a leading force in the game. Nadal, meanwhile, remains the sport’s greatest ever claycourt competitor. Could a rematch of their Australian Open classic be on the cards at Roland Garros in a few months time?
If that match were to eventuate, and it approached anywhere near the heights it did at Melbourne Park, we’re in for a treat.