Qualifying begins: 20 June
The Draw: 24 June
Pre-event Press Conferences: 25 & 26 June
Order of Play: 26 June
Championships begin: 27 June
COME BACK FOR LIVE SCORES & LIVE BLOG FROM 20 JUNE
“This one stands alone,” Roger Federer said after his five-set win over Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final on Sunday. “This is in its own category.”
You can understand why Federer, despite having already won 17 Grand Slam titles - three more than any other male player - would feel that way about his 18th.
To start, he’s 35 years old. The last man to win a major at that age or older was Ken Rosewall in 1972. It had also been five years since Federer’s last Slam win, coming at The Championships 2012.
During that time he had been a runner-up on three occasions and a semi-finalist on four; but in the end, a fellow member of the Big 4 had always stood in his way. Nadal, in particular, was an immovable roadblock. Since beating Rafa in the 2007 Wimbledon final, Federer had lost their last six matches at majors.
“I said that before the finals: If I were to win against Rafa, it would be super special and very sweet because I haven’t beaten him in a Grand Slam final for a long, long time,” Federer said.
Even before he met Nadal, though, Federer’s run in Melbourne had been special, and especially difficult. It was the first time that he had beaten three Top 10 players—Tomas Berdych, Kei Nishikori, and Stan Wawrinka—to reach a major final, and the first time he needed to survive three five-set matches to win a Slam. In each of them, Federer lost the fourth set before bouncing back to win the fifth against a younger player.
Part of that, you suspect, was the value of his name and reputation. Whatever Federer’s age may be, and however well his opponent may be playing, it will never be easy for guys who have grown up in his shadow to believe they can finish him off. Even Nadal, who has beaten him 23 times, wavered with a 3-1 lead in the fifth set.
As intimidating as it may be to face Federer and his legend, he admitted to having very human doubts about his chances this time. Since his last Australian Open title, in 2010, Federer had lost in the semi-finals there five times. This year, as he watched his two-set lead over Wawrinka slip away in their semi, his mind flashed back to those defeats.
“At some point you reach a limit,” Federer said, “and you just can’t go beyond that. You can play them tight. You might win one of them. You just can’t win back to back.”
“Midway through the fourth [set], when I realized my game was fading, Stan was having the upper hand on the baseline, I thought, I guess that’s what I was always talking about. Things turn for the worse, you don’t know why.”
This time, though, when Federer found a way to turn them around for the better.
At 2-2 in the fifth set, Wawrinka reached break point, only to make an unforced error with his favorite shot, his backhand.
But how unforced was that error, exactly? Federer, it seemed, helped draw it out of Wawrinka by hitting the ball higher to Stan’s backhand than he normally would.
“I was a little bit surprised,” Wawrinka said. “I didn’t go back quickly enough when he came a little bit higher with his backhand. I was expecting him to be really aggressive on that shot and he completely changed.”
We hear a lot about Federer the artist and the athlete, but behind both of those is Federer the tactician. He’s versatile enough to change things up from one shot to the next, without having to completely change his game plan. That’s how he began his turnaround against Wawrinka, and he would do the same thing in the fifth set against Nadal.
Since the beginning of their rivalry 13 years ago, Federer had struggled to make his one-handed backhand stand up to Rafa’s topspin forehand. On Sunday, as the deciding set began, Federer was still struggling. Nadal has his heavy ground strokes locked in, and he was up an early service break.
But with Rafa serving at 2-3, Federer again changed the trajectory on his backhand. When Nadal hit a heavy loop, Federer sent one back even higher. With Rafa backed off the baseline, Federer jumped on his next backhand for a game-changing, and eventually match-changing, crosscourt winner.
“I had opportunities early on in the fifth to get back on level terms,” Federer said. “I could have been left disappointed there and accepted that fact. I kept on fighting. I kept on believing, like I did all match long today, that there was a possibility I could win this match.”
“I think that’s what made me play my best tennis at the very end of the match.”
Federer saved his best for the end of the match, and he saved some of his best tennis for the end—or close to the end—of his career. His most memorable and satisfying win, the one that, as he says, “stands alone,” came after two decades on tour. First against Wawrinka and then against Nadal, Federer reached his limit, and found out he could go beyond it.
“Can Federer win another major?” Since his last major title, at Wimbledon in 2012, this question has been asked more than any other in tennis. Now it never needs to be asked again.
Roger Federer, as he proved in Melbourne, can always win another Grand Slam.