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Rolling back the years in Melbourne

• Posted in Australia / Tennis • By JoeBaker

The dust has now well and truly settled on the 2017 Australian Open and there can be no denying that it proved to be one of the most memorable of all time. In fact, it felt like we were going back in time.  First the Williams sisters played in the women’s final, 19 years after their first ever Major final against each other, that just happened to be on the same court in Melbourne. Then came the renewal of one of the most famous and revered rivalries in the history of sport as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal rolled back the years in the men’s final.

The match between Serena and Venus was as straightforward as many predicted, with the former securing an astonishing 23rd Grand Slam title. Yet the match between Federer and Nadal, players with 31 slams between them before the final, was anything but as they took fan nostalgia to almost unbearable levels in another one of their classic five-setters, with Federer eventually taking his 18th Grand Slam title.

You could fill pages fawning over what these four players have achieved in their tennis careers. However, it was the run to the final and eventual victory for Federer that captivated tennis fans more than any other. This final was fittingly his 100th match in Melbourne, with the win bringing him his 5th Australian Open title and making him the first man to take five or more titles at three grand slam events. At the grand old age of 35 he also became the second-oldest man behind Ken Rosewall to win a major singles trophy, at a time when the physical demands of the sport are higher than ever before.

There can be no denying that the shock early exits of new world number 1 Andy Murray and the master of Melbourne Novak Djokovic offered up an opportunity for Federer. Nevertheless, his journey to the final was earned, not given. He had to overcome Tomas Berdych in the third round, no easy task, and it was predicted his 35-year-old legs wouldn’t be able to cope with the nimble and dangerous world number five Kei Nishikori – but this tournament was anything but predictable. He cruised past the man who knocked out Murray, Mischa Zverev, and then still had enough in the tank to come through five sets against his fellow countryman and by that point the tournament favourite, 2014 Champion Stan Wawrinka. Over the course of the two weeks only the giant Ivo Karlovic hit more aces than Federer. He was second on the list of return winners, fourth for clean winners and boldly went to the net almost 250 times.

The eventual bringing together of Federer and Nadal got everyone reminiscing over a rivalry that defined the first decade of the millennium. No one expected it to come to this – the world number 17 and 9, each in the twilight of their careers with the good times apparently behind them, suddenly in a final together for the 9th time and for the first time since the 2011 French Open. Sometimes the enormous anticipation ahead of a match leaves it eventually feeling slightly underwhelming. This final didn’t disappoint. They’d battled it out for the trophy here in 2009, when Nadal was the victor, yet this time it was Federer – winning in five thrilling sets 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 in just under four hours for what was remarkably only his third victory in 12 slam matches against Nadal. It was a match full of big hitting, intent and quality. The fact that there were 184 rallies of fewer than four shots showed how both players were going for broke. Despite being a break down in the decider, Federer found that extra momentum, eventually grabbing 2 of the 11 break points he found on Nadal’s serve and the Norman Brookes trophy was his again. Their post-match speeches were almost as impressive as the match that had preceded them.

In a career of so many achievements, where does this one stand for Federer? He claimed that he was as surprised to win this title as he was when he clinched his first at Wimbledon back in 2003. Indeed, this victory, which took him back into the world’s top 10, was the result of an amazing comeback following six months out with injury. He hadn’t even played a tournament since surgery after Wimbledon. It also came when it was expected that other sprightlier, and in form, players would take advantage of Murray and Djokovic’s slips, not a man who was just happy to be playing in the latter stages of the tournament. It was half a decade since his last Major, with most assuming his chance of a fairy-tale 18th title had gone after defeats to Djokovic at Wimbledon in 2014 and 2015 and the US Open that same year. How wrong we all were. We expect players to perform at such a level in their prime but not when a career is nearing an end and serious injury has struck. It is a true sign of Federer’s greatness and probably is the least likely, and most impressive, triumph of his career.

As much as we want it to, Federer cannot keep gracing courts forever. So, what next for the famous Swiss? The knee injury that forced him into surgery hasn’t resurfaced and physically he looked more than capable of challenging on the tour for a couple more years yet. The next Slam, the French Open, is likely to prove out of reach - he has never enjoyed playing on clay and the surface will be particularly tough on his body. His best chance for a 19th Slam will be Wimbledon – do not be shocked if he decides to step away gloriously from Centre Court into retirement with an 8th title to his name.

No one has ever doubted Federer’s greatness. Yet after 5 years without a Major, this win gave us another reminder of just what an astonishing player he has been, and continues, to be. No player will ever get close to his haul of titles; no player will ever be as poetic, masterful and captivating on a tennis court. The whole tennis world knew this already but one, perhaps final, reminder was more than welcome. 

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