After missing the second half of last season with a knee injury, the Swiss star came back in style by winning the Australian Open Sunday and turning the tables on nemesis Rafael Nadal with a gripping 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 victory in just over 3 1/2 hours.
The clash marked an extraordinary comeback for the duo, both of whom have battled recent injuries and are now older than most of their opponents.
"I don't think either one of us believed we were going to be in the finals at the Australian Open... four, five months ago, and here we stand in the finals," Federer said.
But Federer was obviously much the happier.
"This is beautiful, but it's still much better, the (other) trophy," Nadal said as he looked glumly at the runner-up trophy.
Federer wept when losing to Nadal in the 2009 Australian Open final in five sets. This time he cried tears of joy and vowed to celebrate deep into the morning.
"We're going to party like rock stars," Federer said.
Never in his "wildest dreams" did the Swiss even expect to make the final, especially since he was handed a tough draw. So what was the 35-year-old -- the second oldest man behind Ken Rosewall to win a major in the Open Era -- thinking when bagging his record-extending 18th major and first since Wimbledon in 2012?
He compared the win in importance to the 2009 French Open when he claimed the clay-court major for the first and only time. Nadal was the man who had habitually stopped him in Paris.
"I waited for the French Open," he said. "I tried. I fought. I tried again and failed. Eventually I made it. This feels similar."
Federer had to do it the hard way, too, rallying from 3-1 down in the fifth. He rarely takes medical timeouts but did so entering the fifth set against Stan Wawrinka in the semifinals and at the same stage versus Nadal.
It was for the same issue, an upper leg complaint.
Yet he consistently threatened on the Nadal serve and finally got his reward for 3-3 -- after Nadal's forehand on game point clipped the tape and went wide.
In a game highlighted by a 26-shot rally that Federer won with a blistering forehand down the line, he broke again for 5-3 when a good, angled backhand return forced an error. That after Nadal dug out of 0-40 to get to deuce.
But there was still drama to come.
In the last game, Federer fended off two break points with an ace and forehand winner. On a second match point his forehand cross-court was close to the line but ruled good. A challenge came from Nadal and the crowd roared when replays showed the ball to be touching the line.
It was, truth be told, an anticlimactic conclusion as Federer had to wait before finally celebrating. The two subsequently hugged and exchanged words at the net.
"It's slightly awkward to win this way," said Federer. "Nevertheless emotions poured out of me. Of course I was seeing my entire support team, (wife) Mirka going bananas. It was cool."
Even if the hard courts and balls were quicker this year at the Australian Open -- aiding Federer's aggressive, flat-hitting game -- all the numbers suggested Nadal held the edge in the 35th installment of what many consider to be the best men's tennis rivalry of all time.
Nadal hadn't lost to Federer at a grand slam since Wimbledon in 2007. He was 7-2 in grand slam finals against his friend and 23-11 overall.
Perhaps Nadal's five-hour semifinal win over Grigor Dimitrov drained the 30-year-old. He indeed hinted as much.
Newly elected Hall of Famer Andy Roddick said last week the tussle might be the most important in men's grand slam history. If Nadal had prevailed, he'd have been only two majors shy of Federer.
But now the gap has widened to four, seemingly too much for Nadal to overcome even with his resurgence in Melbourne.
Nadal is always one to dwell on the positive and he said he'll walk away from Melbourne in good spirits, despite Sunday's reverse.
"I believe that if I have my body in the right conditions, I can have a great year because I feel I am playing well," said Nadal, who was bidding for a first major since 2014.
Whereas Federer dealt with the knee issue last year, most of Nadal's year was blighted by a wrist problem.
Prior to the defeat to Federer, Nadal snapped a three-match losing streak in fifth sets and gained morale boosting victories over the likes of Dimitrov, Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic and the German with immense potential, Alexander Zverev.
"I am with big personal satisfaction," said Nadal. "I cannot say I am sad."
Federer's win over Nadal, meanwhile, was his fourth top-10 scalp of the event.
As Nadal took control of the match in the fourth, playing his best tennis, it almost didn't happen.
Nadal's forehand, however, was highly inconsistent and lacked depth, which may have been tied to fatigue.
"The shots didn't penetrate like they did before," Heinz Gunthardt, the former coach of Steffi Graf and an analyst for Swiss TV, told CNN. "Especially the forehand, there was nothing on it at times. Way too much spin.
"Honestly I thought Roger was going to win it even when he was behind 3-1 in the fifth. It was Roger that was dictating play."
Nadal was set to pounce early in the third but the first two games of the set proved eventful.
Federer led 40-0 on serve, only to face not one, not two, but three break points. On all three he slammed aces out wide. Aces would dig Federer out of trouble on at least half a dozen break points.
Key third set
Sagging, Nadal was broken in the ensuing game when Federer pounced on a return to force a forehand error. And unlike Federer -- who hit 20 aces -- Nadal wasn't able to get much help from his serve. He countered with four aces.
Federer's backhand -- his weaker wing often targeted by Nadal -- more than held up, too, including in the fifth. Eight of his 14 backhand winners came in the decider.
"Before the fifth he also hit it incredibly," co-coach Severin Luthi told a group of reporters. "I think here we can play like that, the court the way it is."
The last time two players over 30 played in a men's grand slam final was at the 2002 US Open, a swansong in another epic rivalry, between Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi.
|Roger Federer with his Australian Open trophy on Sunday after defeating Rafael Nadal. Credit Thomas Peter/Reuters|
Roger Federer, Defying Age, Tops Rafael Nadal in Australian Open Final
MELBOURNE, Australia — It was Roger Federer’s unlikeliest victory in a Grand Slam tournament — quite a statement for a 35-year-old who has now won 18 of them.
But where else should one rank this Australian Open, where Federer was rightfully viewed as an underdog? Where he arrived seeded just 17th, having not played an official tournament for more than six months? Where he faced his friendly rival Rafael Nadal in the final on sore legs?
Even Federer’s own expectations were tempered for a change.
“I would have said a great event would be quarters,” Federer said. “Fourth round would be nice.”
Federer would get a great deal more than that in Melbourne, a city where his success has mingled with plenty of heartache and tears through the years.
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He wiped away a few more on Sunday as he became the oldest man to win a Grand Slam singles title in 45 years. He managed it by defeating Nadal, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3, to win the Australian Open for the fifth time.
“You don’t know if they ever come back, these moments,” said Federer, who had not won a major title since Wimbledon in 2012 and who had not beaten Nadal in a Grand Slam final since Wimbledon in 2007.
Federer played here with verve and precision but had to scrap his way through three five-set matches in the final four rounds, receiving plenty of treatment between duels. Although he did not have to deal with the world’s two leading players, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, who were upset in the first week, Federer did face top 10 opponents aplenty.
He defeated four of them: Tomas Berdych, Kei Nishkori, Stan Wawrinka and — most important — Nadal, the swashbuckling Spanish left-hander who has so often thwarted Federer on big occasions but who failed to seal the deal on Sunday despite taking a 3-1 lead in the fifth set.
That was perhaps when Federer’s tempered expectations helped him most. This really did feel like gravy after all the major meals he has enjoyed through the years, and he stuck with the game plan he and his coaches, Severin Lüthi and Ivan Ljubicic, had discussed.
“I told myself to play free,” Federer said. “You play the ball. You don’t play the opponent. Be free in your head. Be free in your shots. Go for it. The brave will be rewarded here. I didn’t want to go down just making shots, seeing forehands rain down on me from Rafa.”
Few could have foreseen this final when the Australian Open began. This was Federer’s first official tournament after a long break because of knee problems in 2016. Nadal ended last season early, too, after an injury to his left wrist. And yet the occasion felt so familiar, inciting global interest and nostalgia for the days when Federer-Nadal summit meetings were a staple.
But this was not business as usual for Federer on a court that he repeatedly maintained was playing quicker than in past years. His one-handed backhand has long been his weak link against Nadal, whose whipping topspin forehand has forced Federer to hit too many backhands above the shoulder — and too many backhands, period.
Federer took a more proactive approach Sunday, driving his backhand for much of the match instead of relying on his more neutral slice. He ripped through his backhand returns as well, and Nadal — not quite at his relentless best — was unable to grind him down. With the match in his grasp, Nadal wavered while Federer let his elegant strokes fly.
“He did not surprise me,” Nadal said. “He was playing aggressively, and I understand that in a match against me. I don’t think it would have been intelligent to try to get into too many long rallies from the baseline. I don’t think he would have won. He went for it, and it was the right thing for him to do.”
The result was a brisk five-setter by Nadal’s standards. The Spaniard required 4 hours 56 minutes to beat Federer’s stylistic acolyte, Grigor Dimitrov, and his one-handed backhand in the semifinals.
Sunday’s final lasted 3:38, and that included a medical timeout that Federer took off court after losing the fourth set.
Federer has rarely taken that liberty through the years, but he did the same before the fifth set of his semifinal victory over his Swiss compatriot Wawrinka, citing a groin injury.
Federer’s decision to take a timeout again on Sunday drew criticism from the former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash of Australia, who said on BBC Radio that it was “legal cheating” to interrupt a long match because of weariness.
Federer disagreed and explained that his leg had been bothering him since he beat the young American Noah Rubin in the second round. Federer said that on Sunday, he had begun feeling pain in his right quadriceps “midway through the second set” and that “the groin started to hurt midway through the third set.”
“I just told myself, ‘The rules are there that you can use them,’” he said. “I think I’ve led the way for 20 years, so I think to be critical there is exaggerating. I’m the last guy to call a medical timeout.”
The break did not help Federer start quickly in the fifth set. Nadal broke his serve in the opening game and jumped out to that 3-1 lead. But with his chances appearing to fade, Federer took control, breaking Nadal’s serve in the long and edgy sixth and eighth games of the set.
All Federer had to do then was serve out the championship at 5-3, but he quickly fell behind by 15-40 before saving one break point with an ace and the next with a forehand winner.
On his first match point, he made a shaky forehand error, but he converted the second with a looping midcourt forehand that appeared to land on the sideline for a winner.
Nadal challenged and shrugged, hands on his hips. The review upheld the initial call, and Federer pumped his arms over his head and leapt with delight.
“Of course it’s slightly awkward to win this way,” Federer said. “Nevertheless, emotions poured out of me. I was incredibly happy.”
This victory, he said, was unique.
“I can’t compare this to any other one except maybe the French Open in ’09,” Federer said, referring to his only championship in that event, which came after Nadal had been upset in the fourth round.
Federer is the second-oldest man to win a major singles title in the Open era, behind Ken Rosewall, who won the 1970 United States Open when he was approaching his 36th birthday, the 1971 Australian Open at 36 and the 1972 Australian Open at 37.
Federer has long admired Rosewall, Rod Laver and the leading players of Australia’s golden tennis era. Federer has helped create a new team competition, the Laver Cup, that will start in September, and Laver presented the trophy to him on Sunday night — at Rod Laver Arena.
The victory over Nadal significantly increased Federer’s chances of remaining the career leader in men’s Grand Slam singles titles. With 18, he has a more comfortable lead over Nadal, who is tied with Pete Sampras for second on the list, at 14.
“That’s the smallest part, to be honest,” Federer said. “For me, it’s all about the comeback, about an epic match with Rafa again.”
Nadal has long dominated their series and still leads, 23-12. But on matches played off clay, a surface on which Nadal has a huge edge, the tally is now 10-10.
Nadal won their most memorable final, a five-setter at Wimbledon in 2008 that ended in the twilight and is a candidate for the greatest match ever.
But Sunday’s extended test of talent and perseverance will surely make the Federer-Nadal short list as well, especially if it turns out to be their last mutual hurrah in a Grand Slam final.
“Being honest, in these kinds of matches I won a lot of times against him,” Nadal said. “Today he beat me, and I just congratulate him.”
Nadal is just 30, five years younger than Federer, who made an intriguing comment to the crowd at the award ceremony.
“I hope to see you next year,” he said. “If not, this was a wonderful run here, and I can’t be more happy to have won here tonight.”
The last man to claim a Grand Slam singles title as a 17th seed was Sampras, when he won the 2002 United States Open. He eventually retired without playing another match on tour.
Federer, married and a father of four, has a full schedule planned for this season, and he emphasized later that he hoped to return to Melbourne in 2018. But he still sounded much, much closer to the end than the beginning, as he and his entourage prepared to, in his words, “party like rock stars” in the predawn hours.
“I mean, this is all about knowing that I have only so much tennis left in me,” he said.
He no longer needed to wonder if there was an 18th Grand Slam left in him, too.
Australian Open 2017: Medical time-out was within the rules, says Roger Federer
On top of the enormity of winning his 18th grand slam in his first major tournament after an injury lay-off, Roger Federer had to overcome a thigh injury that plagued him for most of his memorable Australian Open campaign.
The 35-year-old, who has barely been troubled by injury throughout his illustrious career, resorted to taking a medical time-out after losing the fourth set in the final to nemesis Rafael Nadal.
It was a key moment with the match tied at two sets all. Federer returned to take the final set and the match, prompting some outspoken criticism from former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash.
Cash, working for BBC's Radio 5 Live, called the lengthy break "legal cheating", lashing the 18-time grand slam winner for his approach.
"It's cheating and it's being allowed. It's legal cheating but it's still not right," he said.
It was a rare move by Federer who has prided himself on not abusing the rule that allows players to leave the court and receive medical assistance.
He also underwent off-court treatment during his semi-final win over countryman Stan Wawrinka.
Quizzed about his decision to seek treatment after Nadal had regained the momentum by forcing the match into a deciding set, Federer said he was completely comfortable with his tactics.
"Look, I mean, I explained myself a couple of days ago after the Stan (Wawrinka) match," Federer said.
"After he (Wawrinka) took a medical time-out, I thought I could also take one for a change and see if actually something like a massage during the match is actually going to help me. It did a little bit potentially. I'm not sure.
"And then today after probably – well, I felt my quad midway through the second set already, and the groin started to hurt midway through the third set.
"I just told myself, 'the rules are there (so) you can use them'. I also think we shouldn't be using these rules or abusing the system. I think I've led the way for 20 years.
"So I think to be critical there is exaggerating. I'm the last guy to call a medical time-out."
Nadal was asked about Federer's move but the Spaniard didn't want to criticise his rival.
"No opinion about that. I don't know what's going on," Nadal said.
Federer also had to deal with the unusual circumstances of winning his fifth Australian Open after Nadal made an unsuccessful challenge against a line-call on Federer's second match point.
The Swiss was extremely confident his forehand winner had clipped the line, but he had to delay his celebrations as Nadal turned to Hawkeye.
"I guess I've been there before at some point. I can't tell you which finals or – not a finals maybe, but some matches end this way. So we've seen it before," Federer said.
"Of course, it's slightly awkward to win this way. Nevertheless, emotions poured out of me. I was incredibly happy, as you can imagine. Then, of course, I was also seeing my entire support team, (wife) Mirka, everybody else going bananas. It was cool.
"I knew from that point on, like, I actually did really win. That was a great feeling."