Roger Federer had an unwitting curtain call as a grand slam winner at the Australian Open but the significance of his last major final against Rafael Nadal was unmistakeable, writes TIM ELBRA.
Roger Federer’s tears were happy.
“The fairytale continues for us, for me. It’s incredible,” he said after lifting the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup in 2018.
He knew that he had made history. But he did not know that it was over.
Nearly a decade after heaving sobs marked a devastating loss to Rafael Nadal in a five-set Australian Open final, Federer went the distance to defeat Marin Cilic and defend his title at Melbourne Park.
Open title No.6. Grand slam title No.20.
First to the mark, with his last major.
Nadal was vanquished by the Swiss maestro in the previous year’s final, another epic five-setter that proved to be their last clash in a grand slam final. Federer won seven of his last eight matches against Nadal, having something of a final say after their great rivalry had become heavily skewed towards the mighty Spaniard.
The last victory came in the 2019 Wimbledon semi-finals. Federer lost the final to Novak Djokovic, 13-12 (7-3) in the fifth, despite holding two match points on serve at 8-7 in the final set.
He did not get a glorious last triumph at the All England Club, though he won an eighth title there in 2017. His curtain call as a grand slam champion came at Rod Laver Arena.
Rocket was there, snapping pictures on his phone. Ashley Cooper, who died two years later, presented the trophy. Federer always revered the greats of Australian tennis, even after surpassing them. Not a humblebrag to be heard when Federer spoke about Laver. It was always endearing, as were his tears.
Even with win No.20, at age 36, he wept. Melbourne Park did not get to say a proper goodbye, with Federer finally retiring due to injury last year, but 2018 was a fine ending to his glorious reign Down Under. His voice broke as he ended his victory speech with “thank you” and an explosion of camera flashes reflected in his tears as he lifted the trophy above his head.
From being coached as a young prodigy by the late Peter Carter to his prime years with Tony Roche and beyond, Federer has loved Australia. It always loved him back.
“You guys are unbelievable as a country and people,” Federer said in his 2018 Open victory speech, recalling his visit for the Sydney 2000 Olympics, where he fell in love with wife Mirka.
The 2004 Australian Open was Federer’s second major win, after Wimbledon 2003, and Melbourne Park was his second most productive grand slam. At the end of his career, it sparked the run of three majors in two years that ended a four-year drought, and it also allowed him to wrest back respectability when it came to the monumental Nadal rivalry.
Federer v Nadal had become mildly awkward. Nadal often insisted that Federer was the greatest player in history despite clear evidence that he himself was superior. Before Federer’s late surge, starting with a victory in the 2015 Basel final, Nadal led their career head-to-head 23-9. He led 9-2 in grand slam matches and 6-2 in slam finals.
The final tallies read 23-16, 10-4 and 6-3. Nadal still prevailed, but Federer got the chance to remind everyone of his majesty; that his beautiful genius could still best Nadal’s inexhaustible effort. He won their 2017 Australian Open final 6-4 3-6 6-1 3-6 6-3, then shared honours in 2019 at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. Their final match, grand slam or otherwise, finished 7-6 (3) 1-6 6-3 6-4 in the All England Club semis.
It was a belated restoration of the balance. Federer was meant to be the king of hard and grass courts, Nadal the incomparable clay-courter. Tennis was perhaps guilty of pigeonholing Nadal early in his career, though that soon ended, to Federer’s dismay.
A stretch in 2008-09 wrenched the rivalry to Nadal’s favour. Having lost two Masters finals on clay to Nadal in the build-up, Federer was obliterated 6-1 6-3 6-0 inside two hours in the 2008 French Open decider. It was the most mentally-damaging defeat of his career and he was then usurped by Nadal in the Wimbledon decider, 9-7 in the fifth set having won the same match-up in the two years prior. Defeat to Nadal in a five-set 2009 Australian Open final left Federer crying on the presentation stage, to the extent that his rival offered a consoling embrace. Federer beat Andy Murray in the next year’s Melbourne Park final, but he was in thrall to Nadal.
Before Roland Garros 2008, Federer was 6-9 overall versus Nadal, 2-3 in grand slams and 2-2 in slam finals. Including and after the 2008 French Open, up until his 2017 Australian Open final win, Federer went 4-13 overall against Nadal, 0-6 in slams and 0-4 in slam finals. It was a rivalry in name only, even if Federer won notable finals at the Madrid Masters and ATP Finals.
The 2017 Australian Open was a salvation for Federer. Remarkably, it came in the midst of the longest winning streak either Federer or Nadal have had against one another: six-straight victories, albeit the sixth was a walkover at Indian Wells in 2019.
“I feel very happy for you,” Nadal told Federer after that 2017 Open final. It was sincere.
Federer, knowing the immense toll that injuries had taken on his rival in the previous few years, offered a remarkable reply in his victory speech.
“I would have been happy to lose too, to be honest, your comeback was perfect.
“Tennis is a tough sport, there’s no draws … but if there was going to be one, I would have been very happy to accept a draw tonight and share it with Rafa, really.”
Nadal enters this year’s Australian Open as the defending champion. That was partly, of course, because nine-time winner Djokovic did not play last year after his dramatic deportation, yet it was also due to an utterly extraordinary comeback. Six weeks before the Open, Nadal was unsure if he would play professional tennis again, due to lingering foot problems then a debilitating bout of Covid-19.
It was another late-career triumph for Nadal, who took the lead in the men’s grand slam titles race on 21 by beating Daniil Medvedev in the final. With his first Melbourne Park title in 13 years, he set a record for the longest gap between titles at a single grand slam event, became just the fourth man to win each major twice (joining Djokovic, Laver and Roy Emerson) and the first man since Emerson in 1965 to win an Australian Open final from two sets to love down.
“You really don’t know how much I fought to be here,” he told the crowd after a five-hour epic.
By then winning his 14th Roland Garros title, Nadal reached 22 majors before Djokovic hit back with a 21st at Wimbledon. The Serbian can equal Nadal if he wins a 10th Australian Open title this year and few would back against him unless injury intervenes.
Federer was an early victim of Djokovic’s rise to supremacy, losing in the Australian Open semi-finals as ‘Nole’ claimed his first major back in 2008. The Swiss had few answers to Djokovic from then on; his only win against the Serbian in a grand slam final remains the 2007 US Open, against four losses, three of them at his beloved Wimbledon. His final match at the Australian Open was a straight sets semi-final defeat to Djokovic in 2020.
Nadal, on the other hand, still leads Djokovic 5-4 in major finals, though trails 0-2 in Australian Open deciders. One (2012) was a contender for the greatest match in history, while the other (2019) was a lopsided thrashing. While Nadal will again be favourite at Roland Garros this year, Djokovic looks the more likely contender at Wimbledon and the US Open.
The somewhat unfair but overwhelming narrative is that ‘Fedal’ represent the good guys in the grand slam race, Djokovic the bad. With Federer vanquished, Nadal carries on the fight. While Federer and Nadal share a strong friendship, neither has gone beyond grudging respect for Djokovic.
It has mattered less and less to the Serbian, once desperate to be loved but now empowered by his maligned status. He has revelled in the unusual adversity of being a legend whom the crowd does not always, or even often, favour. He remains more likely than Nadal to lift the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup once the Open is over, and that’s what matters as the race for history draws to its thrilling conclusion.
As for Federer? Until Nadal won it last year, Roger claimed the ATP Tour Fans Favourite award 19 years in a row.
That record will never be erased, nor the memories of how beautifully Federer played the game, from Wimbledon to Melbourne Park.