With his 18th Grand Slam title, Roger Federer proved once more he’s the greatest ever to play the game of Tennis. It was fitting that to end his long drought in the Australian Open and in major tournaments in general, he had to beat Rafael Nadal in five grueling, epic sets.
The one thorn in Federer’s claim to the monicker “Best Tennis player of All-Time” was his record against Nadal. Still is to some. But in the world of sports fans, it’s always about what have you done for me lately. And Federer ending his streak of losses to Nadal in best-of-five matches, beating him in a Grand Slam tournament for the first time since the 2007 Wimbledon final, might have been bigger than winning his 18th grand slam title.
Why actually? Nadal still leads their personal rivalry 23-12, with a 6-3 lead in Grand Slam finals. If the two meet on the red clay at Paris in a few months, Nadal would be a massive favorite to beat Federer there in yet another final. But somehow it wouldn’t matter. Nadal proving he’s better than Federer on clay won’t change the dynamic of this rivalry, only emphasise a quality in it there’s no denying. But while Federer has at least five titles in each of the non-Clay grand slam titles, Nadal, sometimes due to injuries, has shown incredible inconsistency when it comes to picking up back-to-back championships outside Paris in June.
Grand Slam championships have more weight than anything in any of these ‘best of all-time’ discussions, and Federer just took another step towards immortality. Doing it at his age, after almost five years of Grand Slam championship drought, against an opponent he has had so many mental and technical difficulties against over the years? It gave this final one of the best storylines of all time. It wasn’t as good of a match as their finals in 2007, 2008 and 2009, but sometimes it’s not about the quality of tennis; it’s about the story. Think of the Cubs vs Indians, game 7. Best baseball game ever? Hard to say. But it had to be the biggest one, with the most riding on it, exactly for that reason: Story.
It’s impossible to say what’s next. Nadal’s knees and Federer’s back make them underdogs in an ATP tour run by Andy Murray, a suddenly sliding Novak Djokovic and late bloomer Stanislas Wawrinka, who I see as a favorite against almost anyone on the tour except for Federer, who he has a weird mental block when facing. But the 2017 Australian Open taught us that the era of the Big Four in tennis isn’t over yet. Djokovic’s incredible run towards Federer’s record has slowed down and suddenly it’s not so easy dominating like before. Murray had a strong finish to 2016, but it’s hard seeing him picking up the title in Paris. Wimbledon and New York look a bit more likely, but that’s very far down the road.
I think Nadal showed something in this loss that a lot of Federer fans ignored over the years. They hated Nadal. It’s a problem comparing anyone to Federer, not just because of his ability. Federer, when he’s in the zone, is truly creating poetry and art while swinging his racquet. And Nadal’s tennis was the perfect antidote to it. Things flipped in this match. Federer’s backhand wasn’t an issue anymore. In the fifth set, Federer put enormous pressure on Nadal’s serve, and looked like the fitter player. Nadal look human. He’s aged very quickly in the last few years. He was at his best when speaking to the crowd inside the Rod Laver arena after the match. Humble, poised. He’s almost always been that way, but for many Federer fans, this win helped them see things like they really are. It’s alright to be a massive Federer fan and appreciate the greatness of Nadal, who might suddenly see an opportunity to improve on his 14 Grand Slams, only with a wider gap between him and Federer once again.
Whether this will motivate Federer even further and give him some sort of boost in what remains of his career also remains to be seen. There doesn’t seem to be a waning in his hunger for wins and championships. The question is how much more his body can give him. A full season, with an ample amount of rest? More than just 2017? It’s impossible to say. The best tennis player of all-time is showing remarkable longevity, on par with his excellence on the court. If we learned anything from January 2017, is that the old guard, chiefly Nadal and Federer, refuses to make way for new names. Some of those who have been waiting for over a decade are already past 30, and received some bad news. Federer, as long as he’s healthy, isn’t going anywhere.