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.