Federer Leaves Australia as Best Ever, Showing Tennis What It Sorely Lacks

Greg CouchNational ColumnistJanuary 29, 2017

Roger Federer of Switzerland celebrates his victory over Rafael Nadal of Spain in the men's singles final on day 14 of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on January 29, 2017. / AFP / SAEED KHAN / IMAGE RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - STRICTLY NO COMMERCIAL USE        (Photo credit should read SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)
SAEED KHAN/Getty Images

It's finally done now. Over. Resolved. Roger Federer is the greatest men's tennis player of all time. Period.

You don't get moments in sports like the one tennis had Sunday. With Federer pitted against Rafael Nadal in the final of the 2017 Australian Open, the stakes couldn't have been much higher.

Winner takes history and the right to be called the greatest of all time.

In yet another classic between two classic players, Federer won 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3. It was his record 18th major title and a significant one over the guy who has been beating him for years.

The tennis world was lucky to get this matchup again in the men's game, especially only one day after Serena Williams stamped herself as the best ever in women's tennis. It was a bonus in the new, boring, epic-free era of Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic. One last, unexpected Christmas for tennis, even if Federer is too old and Nadal's body is broken down.

And Federer leaves Melbourne as the best ever. Until May, anyway, when the French Open begins.

If we learned anything the past two weeks at the Australian, it's that this Federer-Nadal rivalry doesn't yet have to end. In fact, it shouldn't. They weren't just two former greats having another great moment at the same time. They are actually back on top of the game again.

But for how long?

In his post-match speech on court, Federer pleaded with his longtime rival not to walk away anytime soon.

"Stay on the tour; keep playing, Rafa," Federer said. "Please. Tennis needs you.''

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 29:  Rafael Nadal of Spain aknowledges Roger Federer of Switzerland after Federer won their Men's Final match on day 14 of the 2017 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 29, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Ca
Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

As for himself, the 35-year-old Federer offered a warning of sorts, telling the crowd, "I hope to see you next year. If not, this was a wonderful run here.''

If not?

The cold truth is that the Australian Open showed so much not only about Nadal and Federer, but also about the rest of the tour. It exposed the up-and-comers. Nadal and Federer have set the example for this tour for a decade, and like parents, you hope to groom your kids to be ready to go off on their own.

Tennis isn't ready to go off on its own. Djokovic has lost something mentally and perhaps physically, too. Murray seems worn out. These were Federer's and Nadal's replacements. And they both lost early, so this looked like the moment that the up-and-coming generation would emerge.

Instead, Nadal and Federer picked off one up-and-comer after another. They beat all of them. All of them.

Milos Raonic, Grigor Dimitrov and Kei Nishikori were two generations behind Federer and Nadal. Raonic has been the most likely to break through. His power game is perfect for beating Nadal.

But Nadal crushed him. And then Nadal beat Dimitrov. Federer beat Nishikori. A generation younger, teen Alexander Zverev has already moved into the top 25 and everyone says he's a future No. 1. What happened? Nadal switched tactics, changed up spins and pace and outsmarted the kid until Zverev's body broke down.

Three months ago, Nadal's 30-year-old body was so broken down that he couldn't even play. His wrist, knees, whatever. And it was the teenager's body that broke down?

"I don't think we both, either one of us, believed that we were going to be in the finals of the Australian when we saw each other at your academy four, five months ago,'' Federer said to Nadal after the match. "And here we stand.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 29:  Rafael Nadal of Spain plays a forehand in his Men's Final match against Roger Federer of Switzerland on day 14 of the 2017 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 29, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Scott
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

"I'm happy for you. I would have been happy to lose, too, to be honest. The comeback was perfect as it was. Tennis is a tough sport; there's no draws. But if there was going to be one, I would have been happy to accept a draw tonight and share it with Rafa, really.''

You think Bill Belichick will say something like that if the Patriots win the Super Bowl?

In October, Federer went to Mallorca, Spain, Nadal's hometown, for the opening of Rafa's tennis academy. Earlier this week, when Nadal and Federer began realizing they might reach the final together again and started feeling nostalgic, Nadal recalled Federer's visit in one of his post-match speeches.

"He came to the opening, so I just say thank you very much to him for that amazing moment he gave us and everyone in my small village,'' Nadal said. "We [were] supposed to play an exhibition match and he, because [of] the injury with his knee and [the] injury with my wrist, we didn't make it.

"[We] just hit some shots with the kids. So it was a moment I think both of us never thought we'd be here again."

It just goes on and on and on with these guys through the years, even if we've had to wait a while through their injuries. At first, Nadal was long (pirate) pants and long hair, and now he's short pants and hair plugs. And Federer? He has gone from perfection and fluid grace to, well, that's still what he is, just a little slower.

Federer now leads the major count over Nadal, 18-14. And yes, he still would have led 17-15 had Nadal won Sunday. But Federer rarely beats Nadal, and how can you be the greatest of all time if you can't beat the main rival in your own era? That's still a legit point, by the way. Nadal leads their head-to-head series 23-12 and leads 6-3 in major finals. But that's what made Sunday so important for Federer—it wasn't only what he won, but also who he beat.

We can only hope the next generations of tennis players were watching, because Nadal has been bullying with topspin for years, yet he has altered his game some to cut down on running. And in mid-matches he…wait for it, next generation…changes tactics. He did the same on Sunday, too, after Federer won the first set convincingly. Nadal started moving up on his return of serve and attacked.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 29:  Roger Federer of Switzerland plays a backhand in his Men's Final match against Rafael Nadal of Spain on day 14 of the 2017 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 29, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Michae
Michael Dodge/Getty Images

Federer was tensing up and wearing out late in the match when he started stepping all the way into the court to cut off angles and attack back. And a 3-1 Nadal lead in the fifth set evaporated when Federer won the final five games.

It's not easy to change. For years, Federer stubbornly stuck with his old-style racket and let less-skilled players with modern equipment beat him. But finally, Federer adapted. Now he has a racket stiff enough to handle Nadal's wicked topspin high to his backhand. Today's young players know all about power and perfect form but nothing about winning.

Inspiring as Sunday was, it's not certain that either Federer or Nadal will stick around to keep showing the young players the way. Several years ago, I was able to watch old, fading Pete Sampras beat old, fading Andre Agassi in the U.S. Open final. Sampras, who had lost nerve in his backhand, had finally gotten over it. He was ready to roll again.

He never played another match.

It's sad to see superstars stick around too long. But it's not great seeing them leave too early, either. Roger and Rafa's re-emergence can last.

"I'm just going to keep trying; I feel I am back at a very high level," Nadal said.

"I hope to see you again next year," Federer said.

Tennis needs them.