“This one stands alone,” Roger Federer said. He now had 18 grand slam trophies stacked up in his collection but of all of them, of all the stunning victories, all the majestic performances, the 2017 Australian Open was something special.
He had beaten his oldest and most dogged rival, Rafael Nadal 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 and he had taken three hours and 38 minutes to do it. It was his third five-set win of the tournament and for his 35-year-old legs that was a pounding he never thought he could survive.
Six months off with a knee injury in the second half of last year had given him a chance to rest and work on his fitness but, at such an early stage in his comeback, he never dreamed that this would be possible. And the fact that it was Nadal, the man who had beaten him in six of their previous eight major finals, standing between him and the silverware made the victory seem all the more improbable.
“I go back a long way with him,” Federer said of Nadal. “I’ve seen him grow and become the legend that he is now. He’s hurt me and my career many times but he’s made me tougher. Without him, I think maybe I wouldn’t be here tonight.
“This one stands alone. It’s so different than all the others. The first win always feels different because you make your breakthrough. Then you have these streaks when you win a lot and they feel different again. But this one is different.”
It had been almost six years since he and Nadal last contested a major trophy – the French Open in 2011 which Nadal won – and it had been a decade since Federer had beaten Nadal in one of those finals. The drip-drip-drip of those losses to Nadal had had their effect on his confidence in the crunch moments, so his two coaches, Ivan Ljubicic and Severin Luthi, tried to clear his mind of all that had gone before. The match was supposed to be the dream final and it was time for Federer to dream.
“They told me, ‘It’s mental, it’s not physical’, and I think that’s what decided it,” Federer said. “I embraced the fact that it was a big match. Don’t shy away from it. It’s big for me, for him, for everyone. And I had the necessary distance from it because I hadn’t played him in a final for a long time. I was just playing the ball and not the opponent.”
It was the classic match-up between the purist and the athlete. Federer attacked, he served well, he came forward to take charge of the net and when Nadal attacked his backhand, he retaliated.
The Swiss’s backhand is supposed to be his weaker flank but at Federer’s level, everything is relative. He speared the shot down the line, he found angles and he created winners. When he was pinned to the baseline, he used it to boss rallies. And to keep Nadal on his toes, sometimes he ran around it and leathered his forehand.
“I told myself to play free,” Federer said. “That’s what we discussed with Ivan and Severin before the matches. 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.”
And he was. There were two sets of this aggression interspersed with two sets of Nadal’s relentless baseline attack. This was everything the two men had been doing to each other for the past ten years condensed into five sets.
The worry for Federer was his fitness. He had promised to give everything he had, even if it meant he could not walk for five months, but when his thigh and his groin started to hurt in the second set, it was a concern. A medical time out after the fourth set allowed him to have a few minutes of massage which helped a little but when Nadal took a 3-1 lead in the fifth set, Federer’s chances looked slim.
But then the Swiss sprang back. He pushed and he harried and pressed. He broke back and then he pushed and pressed again until on his fifth break point, he snapped Nadal’s resistance once and for all. He was 5-3 up and serving for the title.
The moment of history, the moment he won his precious, 18th grand slam trophy came on a Hawk-Eye challenge. The ball landed on the line and Nadal, knowing he was clutching at straws, challenged the line call.
The seconds it took for Hawk-Eye to make a judgement felt like hours but when the ball was adjudged to be good, he jumped up and down like a child on Christmas morning. He had made history again and he had beaten Nadal to do it. This one really did stand alone.