It was the sort of match that you knew, no matter what the final score line, would be tight. A closely-fought battle between two natural talents of tennis.
Andy Murray, the young and feisty Briton who has been tipped for a Grand Slam victory for years, against the experienced campaigner and ultimate champion, Roger Federer. For many tennis purists, a match as close to heaven as one can achieve in today's slow, grinding game.
As experience goes, a player can't be much wiser than Federer. Fifteen Grand Slam victories, including triumphs at all four majors and on every surface in the game, plus the record-holder supreme of 23 consecutive Grand Slam semifinals, 22 Grand Slam finals and 237 consecutive weeks at No. 1, giving him a total of 268 weeks at the pinnacle of the men's game.
Yet the sun-soaked fortnight in Melbourne showed that Murray would be in no way just putting in an appearance on Sunday night. Dropping only two sets in his run to the final, he produced awesome displays of his grit and talent in equal measure in his victories over John Isner, the towering American, and world No. 14 Marin Cilic.
After witnessing his dismantling of Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals, a performance showcasing Murray's determination, aggressiveness, and endurance and all the while highlighting Nadal's increasing vulnerability against top ten players, many thought that a similar performance in the final against any opponent—even Federer—would be enough to crown the Scot the Australian Open Champion.
Before the tournament, there were whispers that Federer was not at his silky-smooth best.
After becoming father to two twins, getting married, and surpassing Pete Sampras' 14-Slam haul at Wimbledon, many thought that the subconscious motivation to work that extra bit harder, both during tournaments and in practice, was just a little absent from the Swiss' mind.
Shaky performances, too—well, at least by Federer's elevated standards of play—against Russians Igor Andreev in the first round and Nikolay Davydenko in the quarterfinal increased the jitters among Federer fans that perhaps the champion didn't have the optimum conditioning needed to win seven hard-fought matches in two weeks.
Nevertheless, a Grand Slam holds significant and unparalleled resonance within the Federer psyche.
A stunning victory against Lleyton Hewitt in the fourth round and an even more impressive, almost faultless display against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the semifinals set the perfect scene for a battle of mind and body in Rod Laver Arena on Sunday night.
And so it transpired. From the offset, each service game was closely contested, with both Murray and Federer reaching deuce and breakpoints several times over. Numerous close calls in the first set would have seen Murray go up a break—but with Murray's serve faltering, instead it was Federer that gained the advantage, winning the first set 6-3.
A second set break to Federer shortly followed at 2-1, in a game where Federer orchestrated a stunning symphony of his all-court skills to reach 0-40 and then finish with the decisive break.
Chances were missed by both players, including some serious opportunities for Federer to increase his advantage to two breaks, but the first and only break of the set secured Federer's second set win, 6-4.
By this stage Federer was firing on all cylinders; every shot was timed to perfection, hit with precision and power, forcing Murray to run incessantly from corner to corner of the baseline and forward into the net.
The Scot's relentless—and increasing—power shots were swiftly and effortlessly swatted away by the Swiss magician with his magic wand.
As soon as Federer captured the second set from Murray's grasp, the match looked to turn inevitably and uncontrollably in the Swiss' direction.
A jaw-dropping 155-0 record in grand slam matches when Federer has been two sets to love up only cemented the feeling that another victory was on its way.
But still, Murray pushed and pushed for a crucial break, a swing in momentum, anything to turn the match back to his side, toward his dream. He got it, at 3-2 in the third set, when Federer dropped his level slightly and mistimed several shots; nevertheless, like a true champion, Federer never panicked and broke back to even the set at 5-5.
A crucial third set tiebreak ensued. The tension in Rod Laver Arena reached fever pitch as mini-breaks were exchanged throughout the early points.
After each and every point the crowd erupted into a cacophony of noise—screams, bellows, chants and sighs in equal measure—all in the hopes of lifting their respective idols. A smorgasbord of red, white and blue faces, banners, clothes and flags coloured the entire stadium.
Everyone knew that should this tiebreak force a further set, the outcome of the match could be drastically altered in the underdog's favour.
So the nail-biting continued. After numerous missed set points and championship points, with increasing sighs and shouts from both the audience and the players, a further chance for Federer to seal the victory.
The crowd hushed; a service fault by Murray; gasps from the crowd; a second serve, return, forehand into the net. Federer cried in delight; the victory was secured, 13-11 in the third set tiebreak.
Needless to say, Murray was disappointed at his loss, crushed by being so near, yet so far from his dream. The raw emotions that spilled out in his runner-up speech showed the anguish of faltering once again in the high-stakes situation of a Grand Slam final.
But as ever, Federer was the ultimate champion. He vanquished over the challenges posed from the other side of the net in each and every match during the fortnight, while simultaneously acting with grace, poise, and dignity. Towards the media, towards his fans, towards the tournament organisers, he acted—and will continue to act—like a true champion.
As he walked around the stadium in his lap of honour, holding the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup trophy aloft and waving at his fans with unrelenting excitement and enjoyment, no one could refute the fact that this man is truly happy, unaffected by professional or personal regret or failure. The happiness etched on centre of his heart radiated outwards to his luminous glow of success.
Let's not forget that this was the man, the humanitarian, that organised the 'Hit for Haiti', enlisting the help of fellow tennis players and filling 15,000 seats in Rod Laver Arena, two weeks ago to the day.
Now, he stands as not only the human champion, but the sporting champion.
At a time when the greats of the global sporting stage are falling into disarray on account of transgressions, misfortunes and misconduct, there is a desire—no, need - for us to savour this great; arguably the greatest of them all. Who knows when we will be delivered another like Federer.
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