In the first of three pieces on a glorious Australian Open finals weekend, I state that Roger Federer’s legendary victory was about what he did right – and not what Rafael Nadal did wrong.
Four and a half years after winning his 17th Grand Slam title, Roger Federer has won his 18th at the Australian Open. In the months and years that have filled the space between both record-breaking achievements, he has been named – with his record haul of major trophies – as the Greatest Of All Time. But as the months fled on, and the Swiss star saw the rise of a dominant Novak Djokovic – whilst continually missing shots at more big titles – the certainty in the voices chanting his status seemed to waver.
No longer. When Federer overturned the odds at Melbourne Park on Sunday night – defying an 11-23 head-to-head record against his nemesis, and completing a run of four top ten players beaten in his first official tournament back after six months of injury – he appeared to stamp an invisible seal onto the title previously bestowed upon him in his glory days.
In written and spoken words, on social media and in published articles, from those within and without the sport, a simple yet strong sentence did the rounds: “Roger Federer is the GOAT.”
On Sunday 29th January, 2017 – the day when the 35-year-old Federer won an Australian Open trophy he never expected to claim – this statement seemed more true than ever before.
If this is the case, then, why should Rafael Nadal be blamed for the result?
We all know how tennis works. You need six games minimum to win a set. If you’re a man at a Grand Slam, you need three sets to win a match. To get to this number, there is a mixture of winners and forced errors and unforced errors; of aces and double faults; of one player stepping up and being the aggressor, and the other seeking out a way of pushing them back. And the roles change, and the game-plans adjust. He who sustains the same game-plan throughout the whole match is either running away with it, or is frankly unable to produce anything else.
For seasons, Nadal has dominated his rivalry with Federer by bludgeoning forehand after forehand to his one-handed backhand. But one of his core issues on Sunday was that the Federer backhand – beautiful when on-song, but often his weakest weapon – was keeping him in rallies, and unleashing plenty of winners. Having already outperformed his expectations for the event, the world no. 17 entered the contest with the mindset that he had nothing to lose, and everything to gain. That, combined with a lopsided record against the toughest rival of his career, allowed Federer to step up and swing freely on one of the most fulfilling nights of his life.
It was a phenomenal, high quality match. It must have been. Rather unusually, both players hit a greater differential of winners to unforced errors – Federer 73 to 57, and Nadal 35 to 28. And viewers far and wide, from tennis fans and professional sportspeople to notable celebrities and people with little to know interest in the sport at all, lauded two all-time champions for their grit, effort, and sheer brilliance. This battle captured the world like no tennis match has in a long, long time.
Therefore, if Federer is truly the greatest player of all time, why should Nadal’s tactics or errors or mindset be the overriding reason for this result? And why should this loss spell more doom for his future?
Let us put this into perspective. Rafael Nadal has had a horrendous past couple of seasons: initially due to a complete lack of confidence, and then due to the most untimely of injuries. The Spaniard started the 2017 season promisingly, but entered the Australian Open on the back of a painful Brisbane loss to Milos Roanic. The no. 9 seed avenged that defeat in straight sets in the Melbourne quarterfinals, after surviving the insanely talented Alexander Zverev from two sets to one down, and vanquishing Gael Monfils in a four set clash that could easily have gone the distance. In the semifinals, the self-made lefty crushed the spirits of an incredible Grigor Dimitrov in just shy of five hours – making the final having played some of his best tennis since 2013.
And all that from a guy who was widely expected to fall short of the final four.
Nadal may have dominated his rivalry with Federer – and still does – numerically. But many of his victories came on clay-courts, and naysayers act as if the Swiss had never beaten the Spaniard before Sunday. Actually, Federer had won their most recent meeting – in a hard-court final and a final set shoot-out, at that – and has learned much from years upon years of duelling with Nadal. This was the least pressure Federer had faced the 30-year-old under at a major in an abundantly long time, and thus it make complete sense for the former world no. 1 to grab the final momentum swing in a clash that featured many. As the eventual champion swept the final five games, there was little a pumped-up, impressive-in-the-big-moments Nadal could do. It was Federer’s night. He was setting up his opportunities, racing on air, going for the slimmest of margins. Often, Nadal was doing the same. But on the speedy courts that he has so often been deprived of in recent years, Federer was simply too good to be stopped in the final moments of Sunday’s historic war.
Or so most agree. Others think that Nadal did not play the right game, did not hit the right shots, and consequently allowed Federer back into the match.
If people are going to call Roger Federer the Greatest Of All Time, maybe they should stop doing it to fit in, and instead look at what components make up this title: a title that says the man is the favourite to win most of his matches, and is superior to any other person to have ever graced a tennis court.
When Federer whitewashed Tomas Berdych in the Melbourne third round – giving spectators an inkling that something special was about to happen – much of the aftermath was still vile abuse of the Czech player for being ‘unable’ to beat the elite. When the Swiss took down all-court talent Kei Nishikori in his first of three five set wins that fortnight, the discussion was about Nishikori’s struggles of closing out victories against the best in the game. And this after the world no. 5 had shocked Andy Murray in the 2016 US Open quarterfinals, before making the penultimate round of the ATP World Tour Finals.
And now, amidst the wonder of one of the closest Grand Slam finals in recent memory, there are those who wish to say that supposed failings on Nadal’s part had much to say in the outcome of this latest result.
There will always be unforced errors. But for once, can a Roger Federer win be about what he did, and not what the other man did not?
Perhaps the greatest there has ever been simply did not allow his opponent to do his thing.
And as for Nadal, who more than played his part in this enchanting clash, do not be surprised if you see him holding aloft a certain major trophy come June.
Thanks for reading! What did you make of the Australian Open final? Share your thoughts in the comments section!