How Roger Federer finally fought his way free of Rafael Nadal

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In an Australian Open classic, Roger Federer beat Rafael Nadal, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3, to win a record 18th Grand Slam singles title. (AP)

“He doesn’t hit the ball flat and hard. It’s more with a lot of spin, which makes the ball bounce, bounce high, and that’s a struggle I had today. I tried to get out of it, but kind of couldn’t.”

These words were spoken by a 22-year-old Roger Federer after he had faced a 17-year-old named Rafael Nadal for the first time, in Miami in 2004. Thirteen years and 34 meetings later, as the two dueled into the fifth set and the fourth hour of the 2017 Australian Open final, Federer was still trying to “get out” from behind Nadal’s heavily-spun, high-bouncing forehand.

The shot had cost Federer their last six Grand Slam matches, dating back to 2007. By the time Nadal took a 3-1 lead in the fifth set on Sunday night in Melbourne, it looked almost certain to cost him a seventh. Rafa was bearing down hard, hitting with more speed and conviction than he had all night. Tennis’s premier wrestler looked to have Federer all but pinned again.

More than in their lengthy classics from the past, the first four sets of Federer-Nadal XXXV felt like preliminaries to the decider. Federer, as expected, played clean, aggressive tennis to win the opening set. What was slightly unexpected was how he did it. After listening to him talk about the fast courts in Melbourne for two weeks, I thought Federer would barrel forward as often as he could in this match. While he did get to the net 40 times, he attacked primarily with his ground strokes, and finished with 73 winners.

“I told myself to play free,” Federer said. “...Be free in your head, be free in your shots, go for it. The brave will be rewarded here.”

“He put a lot of balls in, and taking a lot of risks,” Nadal said of Federer. “And taking the ball very early, playing very fast.”

But Federer rarely gets a chance to enjoy his freedom for long against Rafa. As expected, Nadal dug in and locked his old rival back down in the second and fourth sets. Rafa’s backhand has improved over the last two years, and it paid off at this event. When Federer stretched Nadal wide to that side, Rafa didn’t give up as much ground as he once did. By the end of the fourth, he was powering serves into Federer’s body and holding with increasing ease.

Federer needed to change the dynamic quickly. He started by doing the same thing he had done after losing the fourth set to Stan Wawrinka in the semis: Walking off court for a medical time-out.

Citing quad and groin problems, Federer said, “I just told myself, ‘The rules are there that you can use them. I also think we shouldn’t be using these rules or abusing the system.” As he implies, momentum-stopping MTOs and bathroom breaks have become the unfortunate norm in tennis. Until now, Federer has mostly avoided the trend. “I hope it’s going to stay that way in the future for me,” he says.

In this case, Federer’s time-out didn’t slow Nadal’s momentum to start the fifth. An unperturbed Rafa broke right away with two forehand winners, and then saved a break point with a big inside-in forehand into the corner. As they had for 13 years, the spin and power on Rafa’s shots had begun to weigh on Federer.

Finally, though, he would find a way out. It began with Nadal serving at 3-2. Rafa looped a forehand to Federer’s backhand; this time, instead of trying to climb on top of it, he sent an even higher loop back and pushed Rafa off the baseline. After gaining the court-position advantage, Federer took a backhand on the rise and sent it crosscourt for a blazing, match-changing winner.

Nadal was shaken. At 30-30, rather than attack a mid-court forehand the way he had for the last set and a half, he hesitated and pushed it long. When Federer broke with a forehand winner, the momentum had shifted. He was free again.

“I had opportunities early on in the fifth to get back on even terms,” Federer said. “I could have left disappointed there and accepted that fact. I kept on fighting. I kept on believing, like I did all match long today, that there was a possibility that I could win this.”

Federer’s level had risen to match Nadal’s, and over the last two games they produced the best tennis of the night, and the tournament. With Nadal serving at 3-4, Federer flew toward the net to put away a forehand, and went up 0-40. Rafa answered with two service winners, an ace, and a forehand winner of his own.

At deuce, they packed a career’s worth of brilliance into one whiplash-inducing side-to-side rally. Forehand blurred into backhand, backhand blurred into forehand, as both players refused to give any ground. In the past, Nadal would have found a way to come out on top of a point like this. This time it was Federer who reflexed a winner down the line. For a split-second, he stared at what he had done in disbelief.

Federer did believe though, enough to climb out of a 15-40 hole in the final game. For this he can thank his serve—he finished with 20 aces to Rafa’s four—and his go-for-broke game plan. Federer saved a break point with an all-or-nothing, inside-out forehand winner, and won the title a few minutes later with another forehand winner crosscourt. Rafa challenged, but Hawk-Eye revealed that the ball had landed smack on the sideline. It was fitting. As was their embrace at the net.

“I said also before the finals: if I were to win against Rafa, it would be super special because I haven’t beaten him in a Grand Slam final for a long, long time now,” Federer said after his 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 4-6, 6-3 victory.

“There is a winner, there is a loser,” the ever-philosophical Nadal said. “In these kinds of matches, anyone can win...Today he beat me. Just congratulate him.”

The last time these two played a final in Melbourne, in 2009, Nadal won in five sets, and he consoled a tearful Federer during the trophy ceremony. From that indelible moment on, their rivalry became legend, and their names remained linked even as their on-court fortunes waxed and waned. Now, more friends than rivals, Roger’s and Rafa’s fortunes had brought them back to the same podium. This time it was Federer’s turn to console a disappointed Nadal, with the best and most heartfelt speech of his career.

“I would have been happy to accept a draw with Rafa,” Federer said with a glance back in his friend’s direction. Somehow, it felt believable, and just right.

This time there were no tears, just smiles of satisfaction, from these two players and everyone around the world who loves tennis.

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