He was 35 years old. At this age, very few played top level tennis and most would have retired. He was coming off a 6 month break from the sport. Most would have started with a minor tournament in some far off city to build themselves back into form. Participating in a hit and giggle mini version of tennis surely wasn’t the best way to prepare for the opening Grand Slam of the year, right?
When Roger Federer turned up in Melbourne to participate in the 2017 Australian Open, he and his fans were just glad that he was back on the tennis court and competing. The greatness of Roger Federer is beyond all the spectacular numbers he has racked up. Sure he has more Grand Slams than any other man, spend more weeks at the top of the rankings than anyone else and most of it for almost four and a half years straight, winning more matches in history than all but two men, playing a record consecutive Grand Slams and having a consecutive streak of quarter-finals and semi-finals in Grand Slams that are, you guessed it, all-time records! Yes, all of this are impressive stats and there are plenty more but none of them tell you just how good Federer is on a tennis court. The sheer variety he brings, the shot making, the mind-set, the consistency and the humbleness were all part of why he is one the most well-known and probably the most well-loved sportsman of today.
But he was 35. He was coming off a 6 month injury forced layoff. And then to top it all off, he got a draw from hell. He was drawn to open against Jurgen Melzer, a qualifier now but still a veteran with Grand Slam semi-final experience under his belt. He was seeded to face, from round 3 onwards, Berdych, Nishikori, Murray, Wawrinka and Djokovic. All of these individuals are perfectly capable of beating Roger. However, most of his fans, the realistic ones anyway, were just hoping to win a couple of rounds and get to the third round. At this juncture, we didn’t want to think too far ahead.
The first two rounds against Melzer & Rubin respectively, went by pretty on par with expectations. Federer was rusty in general and wayward at times but pulled through by calling upon his extensive experience to prevent the matches from going on too long and thereby taxing his body too much.
Tomas Berdych was a formidable third round opponent. To be honest, a loss wouldn’t have upset me nor would it have surprised me. Somehow, the old man turned back the clock and brought out his full repertoire of shots to brush the big Czech aside and move on to the next round. It was vintage Federer!
The man from Japan, Kei Nishikori was a completely different matchup. Kei had a penchant for running shots down all match long and frustrate his opponents. If this match goes long, it would surely test Federer’s match fitness and stamina, not to mention his knees. Not that surprisingly, Nishikori got off the blocks quickly and jumped to a 4-0 lead in the opening set and almost went 5-0.
But then something happened. The competitive fire was well and truly lit inside Federer as he roared back to level the set and take it to a tiebreak. He would go onto lose that tie break but that fightback was special. The Swiss would eventually win in 5 sets and have his fitness tested.
By now, strange things were happening elsewhere in the slam. Both Djokovic and Murray had been knocked out. Nadal almost went out himself but he gritted his way to victory against upcoming teenager Alexander Zverev. His older brother took out world number one Andy Murray and was Federer’s quarter-final opponent. The two players, unafraid to come to the net and actually be good once there, put on a good show but the result was never in doubt as Federer won in straight sets.
That setup an all Swiss semi-final. Stan Wawrinka is a dangerous player, especially this close to the end of a major. But he was playing Federer on a hard court. That was all in Roger’s favour but history wasn’t; Federer had lost his last 9874532 semi-finals at this particular slam. Federer started strong and took the opening 2 sets. But things started going awry for him as Stan staged a comeback and then levelled the match at 2 sets a piece.
Federer then did something that I have never seen him do before; he took a medical timeout. Not sure how much that helped as Stan was still unloading on his ground-strokes in the fifth set. But Federer has the variety in his game that often confounds the big hitters. Stan had multiple break point opportunities but Federer playing with an aggressive mind-set was able to coax errors off his countryman’s racquet and hold on. Stan then completely ran out of luck as he double faulted to give Federer the critical break. A 17 time Grand Slam champion isn’t going to throw away that opportunity and Roger duly served his way to the championship match on Sunday.
Joining him in the final a day later was his nemesis, Rafael Nadal. The Spaniard fended off a spectacular Dimitrov by displaying his trademark grit and never give up attitude. With a 11-23 record against him, history wasn’t on Roger’s side. Neither was his age nor that fact that he played 2 five set matches already. Nadal looked close to his best in the previous match. There were some silver linings though for Federer. The court at Rod Laver Arena was quicker than previous years. And his backhand was particularly effective, especially at finding the short angles for the winners or setting them up. However still, the quiet optimism for a Federer win was reined in by the scars of past finals.
Nostalgia had set upon the tennis world as we got to see these 2 all-time greats go at it one more time in a Grand Slam, something that was completely unexpected before the start of this tournament. It was also an important match considering everything that was at stake. A Nadal victory would take him one slam closer to Federer and further cement his candidature for the GOAT of tennis. A Federer victory would do the same, and by extending his lead in the slam count at this age, it would add to his already impressive legend.
With the whole world watching, both started off pretty well, holding serve without much issues. But midway through the first set, Federer struck first and broke Nadal. The Spaniard couldn’t break back the Swiss as Federer took the first set 6-3. A lot many had predicted an easy straight set win for Nadal. Eyebrows were raised, questions asked and hopes were aroused.
Rafael Nadal is hard to keep down and it takes way more than a loss of a set. Rafa roared his way back into the match as Federer had a lapse in concentration and a drop in his level of play. Double break down, he found his wind again as he broke back once. But he couldn’t do it again as Nadal took the second set 6-3. In many eyes, the expected service had resumed. For Federer fans, a familiar sense of gloom was fast approaching.
The third set almost began the same way as the preceding one. However Federer stubbornly refused to go down as he aced his way out of multiple break points and held serve after a long struggle. That set him free as Roger played with far greater freedom that Rafa was unable to counter fully. Winners rained down on Rod Laver Arena from the Wilson wand as Federer took the third set 6-1. Word was fast spreading that Fedal was putting together an awesome match, one more time.
Nadal’s ability to come back into matches is one of his trademarks. He breaks Federer early on in the set and pushes the Swiss in all of his service games, to Roger’s credit he bends but doesn’t break…well, except that first time. Federer is unable to get a break himself and Rafa serves out the set 6-3. We are 2 sets all and it is a one set shoot out now. Nadal has numerous victories over Federer in five set matches and must have liked his chances since he had the momentum of the fourth set as well. To further aid him, Federer took a medical time out before the start of the fifth set.
The MTO didn’t seem to have any impact as Federer got broken right away to start the final set. But the Swiss didn’t give up and generated break back opportunities against the Nadal serve. But Rafa snuffed them all out to consolidate his lead. Federer held his serve quickly and turned the pressure again on Nadal. And again, the Spaniard held on, somehow. It was now 3-1 for Nadal. And one more time, Federer held swiftly and piled pressure on the Rafa serve. The Swiss kept pressing on aggressively and eventually the Spaniard makes an error to lose the advantage in the set. Its 3 all in the final set.
Federer is in a zone now as he once again holds serve easily and turns the pressure back on Nadal’s serve. He gets to yet another break point courtesy a glorious 26 shot rally that culminated in a forehand winner down the line. Rafa denied the Swiss that opportunity but can’t hold on for much longer as gets broken for the sixth time in the match. It is 5-3 in Federer’s favour and the impossible dream is within grasp now.
But Nadal has no plans on making it easy for Federer. He works his way to a break back opportunity. A combination of aces, gusty inside out forehand and Hawkeye helps Roger navigate his way through the game to a championship point and then a second. He hits a forehand crosscourt off a service return. It looks to be in but Nadal challenges. In a tournament of surprises, there is one last piece of drama. The entire world watches on as Hawkeye delivers its verdict. The ball was on the line and since Nadal never got a racquet on it, it is Game, Set and Match for Federer. Finally the emotion comes out as Roger jumps up and down screaming, with tears in his eyes. Most of his fans have pretty much the same reaction. A long wait had ended and all is well with the world for some of us.
Final Scoreline: 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, g-3
This has to be one of Federer’s greatest triumphs. Why? Because of the following reasons:
- He won this at 35 years old.
- He won this after a 6 month break.
- He won this 4.5 years after his previous Major title.
- He won this after playing 3 five setters in the final four rounds.
- He won this after beating four top 10 players.
- He won this by beating Nadal.
- He won this by beating Nadal after 10 years in a Grand Slam.
- He won this by beating Nadal in 5 sets.
- He won this by beating Nadal after being a break down in the final set.
- He won this with an all-out attacking style that surprised even his long-time fans.
All we Federer fans ever wanted for a long time was just one more Slam, one more chance at Tennis immortality and we got it, almost unexpectedly, on January 29th 2017. Luck, circumstances, tactics all fell into the right place for Federer as he captured a record extending 18th Slam and in doing so at 35, after a 6 month layoff, against his nemesis Nadal, he wrote another glorious, if not the most glorious chapter in his storied career!
— Roger Federer (@rogerfederer) January 29, 2017
AUS 🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆[04, 06, 07, 10, 17]
RG 🏆 
WIM 🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆[03, 04, 05, 06, 07, 09, 12]
US 🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆 [04, 05, 06, 07, 08]
— AFP news agency (@AFP) January 30, 2017