The 2017 Australian Open was spectacular in many ways. The 2 time defending champion and world number 2, Novak Djokovic, lost in the second round to Denis Istomin in an upset of titanic proportions. Even before everyone could digest that result, world number 1 and tournament favorite Andy Murray was humbled by Mischa Zverev in the fourth round. Old guns Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were both making a comeback from injury layoffs and did not have high hopes of the first grand slam.
Roger Federer got off to a smooth start to the tournament. His was at his imperious best against Tomas Berdych in the fourth round and Berdych, in his post match interview, exclaimed that the Swiss was playing the best tennis of his life. Rafael Nadal, on the other hand, had to come back from a two set deficit against Alexander Zverev in the 3rd round. Barring that match, the 2009 Australian champion had a smooth journey to the Semifinals. Awaiting him in the semis was the Bulgarian who was fondly called Baby Fed, thanks to the striking similarity of his playing style with that of Federer. Grigor Dimitrov produced some scintillating tennis that night against Nadal for close to 5 hours. Nadal breathed a huge sigh of relief coming through that match 6-4 in the fifth set. Federer also had to come through a couple of tough 5 setters in the pre-quarters and the semis against Kei Nishori and Stan Wawrinka respectively.
So, two players who did not consider themselves to be in contention for the tile, made it to the finals. It was a moment of deja vu for all the tennis fans. It was 2009 all over again. The last grand slam final between Federer and Nadal was at Roland Garros in 2011. After 6 long years, the biggest rivalry of tennis came back to life. Although Nadal played a tougher semifinal compared to Federer, everyone knew that it would not matter much. It was clear that both these players will give everything they got to win that trophy. The hype surrounding the final was unimaginable.
Federer, as he so often does, began in fine form. He produced an avalanche of winners in the first set and wrapped it 6 games to 4 in quick time – 35 minutes to be precise. This is not the same Federer from the 2009 Australian Open final. He was playing with a bigger racquet head and tweaked his game enough to negate the high topspin of the huge forehand that Nadal hits to his backhand. He was aggressive in his return of serve and was not chipping or slicing the return as he previously did. He was taking the ball early and as a result, the backhand was much flatter and powerful. It was phenomenal to see the technical changes Federer was able to accommodate in his game at such an age.
Nadal, as he so often does too, came storming back into the match in the second set. He was up 4-0 and although Federer was able to retrieve one break, Nadal held his serve to seal the set 6-3. Nadal was beginning to hit the lines with his trademark down the line backhand winners.
The third set was so crucial in the context of the match. Nadal usually runs away with the match when he is in the lead. He does not gift cheap points to his opponents and tries to retrieve everything thrown at him. So Federer had to win the third set to stay in contention. The Swiss had a couple of tough service holds and had to save multiple break points at the beginning of the set. It was Nadal’s turn to rue the missed opportunities as he got broken in the very next game to hand Federer a 2-0 lead in the set. Federer further consolidated and finished off the set 6-1. This was already the most impressive tennis that Federer played against Nadal in his career.
It looked as if Federer found his rhythm and would run away with the match in the 4th set. But the Swiss suddenly lost his concentration and played a poor service game in the 4th game of the set. Nadal was slowly building momentum and he was able to apply more pressure on Federer’s serve. The Spaniard’s serve was back into business and he closed out the 4th set 6-3. The match is now into the deciding 5th set. This is where Nadal is at his ruthless best. Federer had his task cut out. He had to dig deep and produce something special to beat Nadal.
The fifth set is what made this match an epic. Federer suffered a humiliating loss in the 2009 final against Nadal. But he knows this match has been different. Federer was the aggressor and he was dictating the play for most part of the match. He knows that the fifth set would be tough. He cannot go into a shell. He had to believe in his strategy that was working so well for him all night. After returning from a very uncharacteristic medical time out at the beginning of the 5th set, Federer gifted Nadal his first service break. It was a huge moment in the match. The script seemed familiar to many. Nadal had to save a string of break points himself in his next service game, but he held on to a 2-0 lead. Federer was still playing well though. Nadal’s serve was consistently put under pressure by the Swiss. Although Nadal was leading by 3-1, a break of serve seemed inevitable. The moment of brilliance from Federer came in the sixth game when he finally broke his opponent’s serve. Nadal was still resilient and saved 4 break points in his next service game but Federer was relentless in his pursuit and broke again.
Serving for the championship, Federer showed some nerves and had to again save a couple of break points. But he finally made it with a thumping cross court winner. The celebrations had to wait as Nadal challenged the call. As the giant screen showed the ball kissing the better part of the tram line, Federer punched the air and let out a roar. He was finally able to banish the daemons and win his 18th grand slam title. As John McEnroe mentioned during his commentary, Roger out Rafa-ed Rafa. He beat him at his own game. This was the beginning of a new chapter in the glittering rivalry and it seemed as if Federer’s game has turned a corner. The tennis world could not have asked for a better outcome. Two champions, who seemed down and out the previous season, were back to their best doing what they do best.
Trivia: The 2017 Australian open was the 100th match for Federer at Melbourne Park. He lifted his 18th grand slam trophy and became the first player to win five or more titles at three different Grand Slam tournaments.