Tennis fans witnessed epic matches during the golden age of the Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal rivalry, but they saw a different kind of classic in the 2017 Australian Open final on Sunday. This time it was the Swiss pulling out a five-set championship against the Spaniard for the first time in nearly a decade.
Was the 2017 final their greatest match? How does it rank with Wimbledon 2008 or the 2009 Australian Open? How does it compare to the 2012 Australian Open marathon between Nadal and Novak Djokovic, or the 2014 Wimbledon final between Federer and Djokovic?
This latest "Fedal" classic is a little more difficult to categorize, but it's no less than the most unique and dramatic chapter in their rivalry. It might be more special coming well after their absolute prime years, an outlier separated by years, conditions and larger-than-life stories that have aged with their careers.
Federer evaluated the win as more of an emotional relief in his post-match media interview, per the official website of the Australian Open:
The magnitude of this match is going to feel different. I can't compare this one to any other one except for maybe the French Open in '09. I waited for the French Open, I tried, I fought. I tried again and failed. Eventually I made it. This feels similar, yeah.
Nadal was obviously disappointed in the outcome, but he recognized the importance of the final for the fans in his media interview at the Australian Open:
I don't know [how this would rank in matches with Federer]. I don't know now. I just feel that we had a good match, five-set match, in a very special final for the fans and for us. It's great to play against him again after a couple of years without and to make that happen in a big final.
But that's it. I cannot rank this final now.
At the very least, the 2017 tennis season has premiered with an instant classic that is somehow bigger because it was the most surprising encounter between Federer and Nadal. It was the first time the Swiss had played since Wimbledon in July, and the first time since mid-May that the Spaniard was healthy to play his best tennis.
They are 30-somethings who were written off by many, but instead they responded by revitalizing their championship form. It was a journey back into the past, but with a new twist that only shows how timeless this rivalry has been.
Why 2017 was a Different Classic
There is one enduring trait in a championship match featuring Federer versus Nadal; it's the passion and creativity in how they battle each other. They trade blows and respond to adversity, always seeking ways to impose their will. It will define this match forever.
Federer jumped out with some eye-popping power, particularly with crisp backhands that he timed early inside the baseline, cracking them up the line and crosscourt, forcing Nadal to run and daring him to leave anything short.
It's something Federer really started to figure out in his 2012 Indian Wells semifinal victory over Nadal. Likewise, this 2017 final was on his racket most of the match. He either hit beauties or coughed up unforced errors, but mostly he was masterfully aggressive with dictating play in the first and third sets.
It's notable that Federer did not shank as many backhand replies with the bigger racket he started using in summer 2013. The investment paid off on Sunday.
Nadal fought back in the second and fourth sets to level the match. He took charge by lacing his own backhand with flat, scorching power to the Federer forehand, something that rarely happened in the past.
Nadal, 30, used both sides of the court more often than past matches with Federer because his topspin forehand could not spin up as high to the Swiss' backhand.
The Plexicushion surface at Melbourne was faster this year, and Federer could respond with more balls just above his waist rather than his eyes. If the surface was the way it was a few years ago, Nadal would likely have ground Federer down to win the trophy.
Nadal made the necessary adjustments to hit from his extraordinarily deep angles, expanding the court and daring—even hoping—Federer would come in to the net more often and give him a target to pass.
Instead, Federer, 35, dialed in with fearless shotmaking to pull away with five straight games after a 3-1 deficit in the fifth set. Some of those points featured footwork and reflex winners that will live on in legend for fans.
Federer Gains an Important Legacy Boost
There's been talk for about a decade that Federer is the greatest player of all time (GOAT), but despite the numbers, it has never been wholly convincing.
Nadal's last great Grand Slam run in 2013-14 had many observers and former players making the argument that the Spaniard was at least the better champion if not history's greatest. And Djokovic has had support as being the best and most complete player even before peaking as the only modern legend to win the Grand Slam of tennis.
So it was interesting to see articles in the last two days that once again proclaimed that Federer really is the best. It either means that the argument was only previously made with partial confidence or that the debate had resurfaced because another Australian Open victory for Nadal over Federer would have trimmed the major counts to 17 for the latter and 15 for the former.
Nadal would have had the double career major and undisputed dominance of Federer to the point that he would have been the greatest, right?
Federer rose up, conquered Nadal with more variety and grit than we've seen in many years, and he delivered his masterpiece, all factors considering his age; the comeback, pressures to deliver in the fifth set and even up the score with the Spaniard off Roland Garros' red clay.
It validated the idea that peak Federer might have had the greater edge had he played Nadal even once on the faster surface of the U.S. Open, but of course, the two champions have evolved into different players today.
Speculation aside, Federer also understands that it was less about trying to create more number separation with Nadal but rather to persevere through the heat of battle, play with passion and deliver his greatest clutch win, as he told the media in the post-match press conference:
That's the smallest part, to be honest. For me it's all about the comeback, about an epic match with Rafa again. Doing it here in Australia, that I'm so thankful to Peter Carter and Tony Roche, and just people... I guess my popularity here, their support, that I can still do it at my age after not having won a slam for almost five years.
That's what I see. The last problem is the slam count. Honestly, it doesn't matter.
Federer certainly boosted his legacy with No. 18, but the match also showed how difficult it is to split hairs when defining greatness. Nadal nearly went up 4-2 in the fifth. It was after the first deuce, serving with his advantage to the ad court where he usually gives the Swiss fits.
He served to the Federer body, and the world No. 10 deflected enough of the ball to send it to Nadal's waiting forehand on his ad service line. The Spaniard took a healthy crosscourt cut, but the ball clipped off the tape and landed out of bounds.
The score went to deuce, Federer hit a sublime crosscourt backhand winner, Nadal barely missed on an in-and-out forehand winner, and suddenly the break had evened the match and changed the momentum for the Swiss' closing triumph.
Was the difference in their legacies really a fraction of an inch on that deuce point?
Djokovic, Pete Sampras, Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver have their own claims to being the best of all time. Anybody who thinks Djokovic is done winning multiple majors, well, let's see how the Big Three finish out their careers before these debates are finalized.
If we learned anything from the 2017 Australian Open, it's that greatness never fades, even if it ages and breaks down. Federer and Nadal are two special champions, and they've enhanced a rivalry for the ages, somehow delivering another astonishing thriller through all of the hard work, challenges, expectations and emotions.
In the end, this was a special major final, perhaps ranking only below 2008 Wimbledon and 2009 Australia for the sheer quality of play when they were the undisputed kings of tennis.
Their latest clash was more remarkable, even changing the landscape of the ATP and overshadowing the missteps of top-ranked Andy Murray and Djokovic. There's every chance that Nadal and Federer, respectively, could win the French Open and Wimbledon titles as long as they are healthy.
In the end, it was two classy, devoted champions playing tennis with everything they could give. We cannot ask for anything more epic.