Long Live the King

Just sayin’.

I don’t have a whole lot to add to what happened down in Melbourne today, except to reflect on what an incredible privilege it was to see Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal together in a Grand Slam final again under the unlikeliest of circumstances.  It seems remarkable that a finals matchup between the Williams sisters could be relegated to the undercard, but it wasn’t even close – this was the most hyped tennis match in history.

The amazing thing about it was that it lived up to the hype.  Neither of these guys has been in this position for a while, and neither has been healthy for the last year.  Rafa was coming off a five-hour semifinal (shades of 2009) only 48 hours earlier, and Roger is 35, playing his first event in six months after knee surgery and was coming off a five-setter himself.  It was an amazing spectacle, and I hope the huge time zone gap most have with Australia didn’t stop fans from watching it at least on DVR.  Roger, remarkably, beat Rafa mostly from the baseline (40 net approaches in five sets).  He did by going for broke, exploiting the faster surface this year and hitting it flatter than I’ve ever seen him (especially on the backhand).  Take it early, hit it flat – finally, now, Roger seems to have found the winning formula on Rafa (on fast courts, anyway).

With that, Fed ties Jack Nicklaus with 18 Grand Slams and seemingly cements (though it was never in doubt for me) his status as the greatest tennis player ever.  Certainly, he’s the most loved, as the way the crowd (who also love Rafa for his grit and animal ferocity) embraced him proves.  I was a little unnerved by Roger’s closing statement: “I hope I see you next year – if not, it’s been a great run.”  Maybe it’s just, as he later said, an acknowledgment that he’s old by tennis standards and you never know how the body will respond.  But seeing Fed – and Rafa too – play like this makes me selfishly hope both of them will keep fighting for years to come.

Roger trails only the great Ken Rosewall now as the oldest ever to win a Slam, and Ken managed to add one at 36 and 37.  If anyone could duplicate that in this era, surely it would be Roger.  But if this indeed the last one, my God – what a way to go out, vanquishing your great tormentor, great rival and great friend by playing arguably the finest five games of your career in coming back from a break down in the decisive fifth set.  Roger and Rafa owed us no additional great memories – the ledger was already lopsided in their favor.  But they’ve given us arguably the greatest memory in tennis history with this one.

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8 comments

  1. I

    Loved every second of it. I think the injuries, years and kids have changed Federer’s perspective a lot since these two met last time in the AO final. That time Federer felt he needed to win, to keep the no. 1 ranking, to keep chasing the GOAT title, win more slams than Sampras but now he only wants to win. That desire to win but not fearing to lose just takes away all the pressure. He said it himself, he’d rather lose on his terms that be forced to play at Rafa’s pace and it worked. AO was definitely fast this year but there’s hope that Wimbledon and maybe the US Open (so going this year) will be just fast enough for him. Great game from Nadal, he really competed and tried his hardest as always. Usually I’d leave it at that but just because two kings won in the last 7 months I gotta say it: Nadal blew a 3-1 lead in the final set.

  2. He lost a 3-1 lead – I don’t think he blew it. I just think Roger raised his game in a way few thought he could against Nadal. Roger was all over every Rafa service game in that set, even the ones he lost. He just played better.

  3. J

    It’s an important distinction, and one I’d echo – Roger rolled back the years in the final set and showed a fortitude that even I thought he had lost since Wimbledon 2008.

    Further, the fact that almost half of Nadal’s service games went to 30-30 shows that Federer was harrying Nadal at every opportunity. It is testament to Rafa’s own skill (he’s not just a baseline bot) that he came out of that assault equal in sets and a break up. But he didn’t choke – in winning the next five games on the bounce, Roger went up to eleven, trusting himself to shut Nadal out of the court and his own mind, constantly inviting Nadal to either make audacious winners or concede the point. To paraphrase – if you have enough shots on target, eventually you will score.

    It’s also important to note the surface change; biased as I am, I still maintain that it has been long overdue. Casting a cynical eye towards Wimbledon, I do not expect a similar change in the grass (got to get one more British victory before Murray flies the Saltire). Hopefully other venues make the connection between an element of unpredictability in results and speeding up their surfaces to place less emphasis on the baseline.

    Enzo, do you know who Roger is working with now? I thought it was Borg but I can’t find anything concrete. Whoever it is deserves the highest praise for getting Federer to work on his backhand to such an extent. I’ll have to look at previous GS runs, but it looked to be the best I’ve ever seen it.

  4. Totally agree about the courts. Faster makes for better, more entertaining and more unpredictable tennis.

    Severin Luthi is still with Roger, but the big addition in Ivan Ljubicic (former world #3, the bald guy in the players box). He’s effectively replaced Edberg, who I thought actually did some great things with Fed. He almost broke through in 2015 and he did have a great season.

  5. R

    Agreed. The Roger today is better than the Roger then…and he for sure played better.

  6. O

    Roger is the GOAT, there’s no denying it at this point. This match was absolutely amazing.

  7. I woke up at 4AM to watch this! Always glad to see cross pollination of interests on this site!

  8. F

    Is too much for me to ask, that he never retires and dream of the 20th?. What a Gentleman..

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