Australian Open final: Five talking points from Roger vs Rafa

Tim Miller Roar Guru

By , Tim Miller is a Roar Guru

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    He’s done it again.

    Nearly five years since his most recent Grand Slam championship. After a six-month layoff with a career-threatening knee injury. With his lowest ranking in any tournament in more than 15 years. It didn’t matter.

    Roger Federer has again reached the mountain top, his 18th major title and fifth at the Australian Open a five-set epic against long-time nemesis and off-court friend Rafael Nadal.

    Here are five talking points from a match that will live long in the memories of all who watched it.

    1. Roger’s last hurrah?
    Throughout a whirlwind second week at the Open, Federer has reminded us all in numerous interviews of the low expectations he had set for his first major tournament since Wimbledon last July. For him, the fourth round was the goal, with a quarter-final a fantastic achievement; even last night’s final he conceded he would have been “happy to lose” given the success of his comeback thus far in 2017.

    But for the first time ever, Federer was ambivalent about his chances of returning to Melbourne Park to defend his title in 2018. “I hope to see you next year,” he said in his winner’s speech, “but if not, this was a wonderful run here.”

    From a man who has always promised that he, regardless of the inevitable marching on of Father Time, would be back next year, this is the first time the great man’s tennis mortality has looked near, even with those injuries he’s had to battle over the last twelve months.

    But hey, an 18th Grand Slam, and with the same ranking (17) that Pete Sampras had at his final triumph at the 2002 US Open, is a pretty good way to farewell his legion of adoring fans down under.

    2. Sensational Swiss serving
    Federer is a player more renowned for his grace and finesse around the court than his brutal hitting, but from his opening service game, it was clear the Swiss maestro’s serve was his greatest weapon. 20 aces for the match is on its own an impressive achievement considering Nadal’s incredible returning ability, but it only tells one part of the tale.

    Time and again Federer was able to call on a thunderous first serve when he needed it most, or use a well-placed swinger to obtain a cheap point on the stretched Nadal return. Nowhere was this clearer than in the first game of the ultimately crucial third set, where Federer survived three break points, two of them with perfectly placed wide aces over the high part of the net.

    Nadal was broken immediately after, and then again in the final game of the set, and all of a sudden, the Swiss master had a two sets to one lead.

    3. Rafa’s break point masterclass
    At times in this tournament, and across his decorated career, Rafael Nadal seems to win points through sheer willpower. And towards the end of the fourth set and the start of the fifth, nowhere was that truer than when facing break points.

    In his epic semi-final encounter with Grigor Dimitrov, Nadal had shown rare aggression in staving off two break point chances at a critical time in the fifth set, and his attacking strokeplay again came to the fore last night at the most critical of times.

    Fighting to maintain his break lead at the start of the fifth set, the Spaniard looked likely to be immediately broken back as Federer raced to a 15-40 lead. But Nadal held form, ripping a forehand down the line to take it to deuce before fighting off another break point opportunity with another sublime stroke, before another crunching forehand and a Federer unforced error saw him go 2-0 up.

    For a man perhaps best known for his rugged defensive game, the way he was able to rise to the occasion when the moment called for it was simply astounding. As fate would have it, though, the pressure was eventually too much, Nadal losing his final two service games to lose what looked a match-winning advantage.

    Rafael Nadal

    4. A fifth set for the ages
    When Nadal attacked a rare sloppy Federer service game to take the early break in the fifth set, and then had to muster all his energy to consolidate the lead, it looked like the champion Spaniard had weathered the storm.

    But this is Federer we’re talking about; the pressure on the Nadal serve kept building until finally, the rarest of sights – consecutive Nadal unforced errors – levelled the score at 3-3. Suddenly, having looked down and out just minutes before, Federer was right back in the contest. A comfortable service game preceded what was without doubt the game of the tournament.

    Some masterful tennis from Federer saw him take a 0-40 lead before Nadal once again dug deep to save them all. Then came the point of the night, and epic 26-stroke rally that pushed both men to the brink. Time and again Nadal sent his trademark spinning forehands over to the other side, waiting for the inevitable Federer mistake that has characterised so many of their games in the past.

    But rather than wilt, Roger rose to the occasion. Slowly he wrested control of the point, forcing Nadal left and right with some scintillating strokes that only Rafa could manage to return, before finally seizing the moment: pushing Nadal wide with a cross-court forehand before thundering the winner down the line into the open court.

    It was the point of the match, probably the point of the tournament given the stakes, and while a brilliant serve from Nadal staved off yet another break point, it was a sign of what was to come.

    Federer again had Nadal on the hop with some powerful forehands, and finally, Nadal wilted. 5-3 Federer, and serving for the championship.

    But even that was a rollercoaster all of its own. A scarcely believable Nadal backhand winner beat Federer coming up to the net, and from 0-30 down, it took a 19th ace from Federer to see it to deuce. A championship point was brought up, then immediately given away via a nervous double-fault, before yet another ace – a perfectly placed wide serve – saw another one brought up.

    Federer followed up a serve down the T with a cross-court forehand that Nadal immediately challenged. But it had caught the line, the crowd went ballistic, and one of the most engrossing sets we’ve ever seen at the Australian Open was finally done.

    roger-federer-rafael-nadal-tennis-australian-open-2017

    5. A fitting finale
    From the moment World No.2 and reigning champion Novak Djokovic was knocked out of the tournament by unseeded Uzbekistani wildcard Denis Istomin, it was clear the 2017 Australian Open was going to be one out of the box.

    And so it proved, with another unseeded veteran in Mischa Zverev knocking out newly crowned world No.1 Andy Murray in the fourth round, 34-year-old comeback queen Mirjana Lucic-Baroni coming from nowhere to make it all the way to the semis in the women’s singles, and a famous pair of sisters squaring off in an all-Williams final on Saturday night.

    Last night’s final from the top shelf was the perfect full stop to a quite excellent tournament. The two greatest players of this generation, and arguably of all time, fighting it out for perhaps the last time, with both having to fight through difficult draws and plenty of injuries to make it all the way through.

    And the cherry on top of a fairytale sundae? An 18th Grand Slam for the world’s 17th best player (apparently). Another trophy for the Federer legacy.

    As Bruce McAvaney, who had the misfortune to miss out on commentating this tournament (you have a feeling this was the one he would have loved to call), would say: “That was special. Don’t you just love it?”

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