Herman Mostert

No 18 was Federer’s greatest triumph

2017-01-30 12:25
Herman Mostert

Sunday’s Australian Open men’s final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will go down in history as one of the greatest ever tennis matches.

It was the dream final tennis enthusiasts had longed for: Two giants of the game - both in the twilight of their careers - duelling on the biggest of stages one more time.
With Federer ranked 17th and Nadal 9th, a final between the two was unthinkable a fortnight ago.

But with top seeds Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic exiting the tournament in the first week, the stars seemingly aligned for a dream final with both players sensing another shot at greatness.

Federer had not played a tournament for six months due to a troublesome knee, while Nadal also cut short his 2016 season due to a wrist injury.

Both players admitted they never harboured thoughts of reaching Sunday’s showpiece match, but here they were - and on top of their games.

What transpired was greatness personified.

Two of the game’s most decorated champions rolling back the years in another classic five-setter.

The quality of tennis on display was jaw-dropping, the tension similar to the memorable match they contested in the 2008 Wimbledon final. Then, Nadal prevailed 9-7 in the fifth set to win his first major on a surface other than clay.

Heading into Sunday’s final, the odds were stacked against Federer.

He had a negative 11-23 win-loss record against Nadal, including 2-6 in Grand Slam finals, and had not beaten Nadal in a best-of-five sets match since winning the 2007 Wimbledon final.

The match-up has always been a tricky one for Federer against Nadal, with the left-handed Spaniard’s hefty top-spin forehands troubling the Swiss great’s single-handed backhand.

As the commentators stated before the match, Nadal just needed to play his natural game which works more often than not against Federer.

For Federer to win, he had to go out his comfort zone.

He had to serve well, take the ball early and attack the net at regular intervals.

All-out attack was the only way Federer could win.

He did just that, and leading two sets to one, Federer's dream appeared likely, but the never-say-die Nadal fought back to take the match into a decider.

It seemed like Nadal had again worn Federer down when he broke at the start of the fifth set, this after the Swiss had sought a medical timeout for an upper leg injury.

The 35-year-old looked destined to play second fiddle to Nadal on the biggest of stages yet again. He looked set to lose a fourth major final in succession, having failed at the final hurdle on three occasions against Novak Djokovic in recent times.

But Federer refused to read the script, he kept attacking, kept going for his shots.

With Nadal 3-1 up in the decider, English commentator Mark Petchey noted: “Federer is playing well, but Nadal is just playing better...”

Then Federer responded by playing arguably the best five games of his life, taking the final set 6-3 to claim his 18th Grand Slam title.

Never before has Federer hit his top-spin backhand as well as he did against Nadal on Sunday.

He was serving big too - 20 aces compared to Nadal’s 4 - and kept surging forward which saw him finish with a 73% success rate at the net.

Nadal should hold his head high, he did not surrender meekly, Federer simply took the match away from him in those final games - when it really mattered.

For once, Federer’s all-out attacking strategy paid dividends against a player who had managed to so often break down his game.

He hit 73 winners compared to Nadal’s 35, with the slightly quicker 2017 surface no doubt aiding the Swiss great in his quest for an elusive 18th major.

Sunday’s triumph takes Federer four clear of the 14 majors Nadal shares with American Pete Sampras and that gap could likely prove a bridge too far for the Spaniard to overhaul.    

Andy Roddick, the 2003 US Open champion, said last week if Federer and Nadal were to contest the Australian Open final, the match could be the most important in Grand Slam tennis history.

"If you think about the historical significance of what that match would look like, one at 14 slams, one at 17 slams, Rafa wins, it's 15-17, and the French Open is around the corner, it's back on. It's literally game on for the most slams ever. If Roger wins, it's 18-14. I don't know that that divide gets made up,” Roddick told the Sydney Morning Herald last week, when the possibility of a Federer-Nadal final became more clear.

"If that happens, it has to be the most important match in Australian Open history and possibly Grand Slam history," Roddick continued.

Roddick has a point.

Nadal, if he can remain fit, will be confident of adding to his tally at the French Open but winning another four majors would be a monumental task.

Likewise, if Federer can stay fit and replicate the form he started 2017 with, then there's no reason he can't win an eighth Wimbledon title later this year.

The only other current player with a realistic chance of catching Federer is Djokovic, who currently boasts 12 majors.

The Serb has, however, shown signs of vulnerability in recent times and with his 30th birthday approaching, six more majors would take some effort.

Whatever transpires, Federer will look back at his 18th Grand Slam win - against his greatest rival - as his finest hour in a storied career...

Herman Mostert works at Sport24 - is a struggling golfer and enjoys tennis...

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