Australian Open

Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal, Australian Open 2017

The Greatest Matches in Australian Open History #5

Scintillating, surprising, celebratory, significant, stunning, and sublime.

There are so many words that can be used to describe the 2017 Australian Open Men’s Singles Final.

Among them all, the one that stands out the most though is probably “Special.”

This was a special match, a special moment in tennis history, and an extraordinary occasion in the entire world of sports.

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer facing off down under, after having not met in a major since the semifinals in Melbourne 3 years earlier, brought about a sense of nostalgic bliss for the entire tennis world the likes of which it may have never felt before.

Critics will say that the level of play in this match was not consistently top-notch, and they would be correct. But when weighing the credibility of a contest, one must create a balance between both content and context. The latter is what lands this legendary clash at number 5.

Full Match

Watch the full match here:

With the 2018 Australian Open only a few days away, we have decided to vote on, and now countdown, the top 10 greatest men’s singles matches in the history of the tournament. In case you’ve missed any, here is a recap of the list so far:

10. Rafael Nadal vs Grigor Dimitrov 2017

9. Marat Safin vs Andre Agassi 2004

8. Younes El Aynaoui vs Andy Roddick 2003

7. Andre Agassi vs Pete Sampras 2000

6. Novak Djokovic vs Stan Wawrinka 2013

But back to the business at hand.

The fifth best men’s singles match in the history of the Australian Open earns much of its credit for such a place on the list due to the sheer shock that the matchup materialized.

As the 2017 tennis season got underway down under, both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were as much of after-thoughts as they’d ever been. That’s not to say that they weren’t being talked about. It’s Federer and Nadal. Regardless of rank or reason, they’ll always be talked about until they retire.

But as the calendar shifted from 2016 that saw both legends struggle with injury and inconsistency, it was newly-crowned world number 1 Andy Murray and 6-time Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic who were garnering most of the favour to lift the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup.

And then Dennis Istomin happened. And then Mischa Zverev happened.

With the top-2 players in the world bowing out in the tournament’s first week, whispers of a potential Federer-Nadal dream final began to hover around the grounds. No one wanted to say it out loud yet, but the idea had been Inception-ed into the mind of the tennis world. There was no way to ignore it.

Those whispers soon grew to murmurs and eventually soft conversations as both the Swiss Maestro and the Macho Man from Mallorca played themselves into form as the tournament went on. Both posted impressive victories over several highly-ranked, younger opponents, and as the bracket slimmed and the field condensed, the dream grew.

And then it arrived.

With both men persevering through outstanding 5-set matches in the semifinal stage, the lineup card was stamped for a Sunday night special: Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal was going to happen in a major final at least one more time.

In the hours between Nadal’s epic triumph over Grigor Dimitrov Friday night and Sunday’s eventual introduction, the atmosphere of Melbourne Park was beyond excited and rather more resembling of ecstasy down to the literal detail of not knowing if what was being seen was real. The men’s matchup worked in tandem with the women’s final pitting Serena Williams against Venus Williams to create an utterly surreal situation.

“The feeling around the grounds here is one of celebration,” ESPN’s Chris McKendry said.

The sense of occasion was undoubtedly not lost on the participants themselves. Rather than shy away from it, both Nadal and Federer embraced the situation.

“It’s a very, very special thing for both of us,” Nadal said. “It is a real honour to have all these matches with Roger. I have a lot of respect for him; I think he has a lot of respect for me.”

It all seemed too good to be true.

“I think both of us would’ve never thought that we were gonna’ be here,” Federer said. “It’s real now.”

Nadal Intro

The Opening Act

In somewhat similar fashion to their 2009 final, both players came out of the gates in a modest gear. It wasn’t so much that they were tentative, but rather that they were preparing for a willful war rather than a brief battle.

Nadal opened proceedings with a routine hold. In Federer’s opening service game, Nadal earned his first point of the match in a return game by peppering away at his opponent’s single-handed backhand. Heavy top-spin forehands acted as body blows and eventually one of Federer’s responses landed in the net.

“It’s fun to see these points that we’ve seen played hundreds, if not thousands, of time,” ESPN Commentator Chris Fowler said.

But despite that early reminder of one of the primary reasons for Nadal’s, at the time, a dominant head-to-head advantage over Federer, the Swiss quickly stabilized and held his serve.

In the early stages, somewhat predictably, Federer was the more aggressive of the players. He flirted with earning the match’s first break chance in the third game, but his chance was foiled at 30-all when a Nadal forehand clipped the tape and barely crawled over the net.

Federer Backhand

Undaunted, Federer once again pressured Nadal’s serve at 3-all with a preview of things to come. The Swiss quickly earned the opening point with a strong backhand return followed up by a simple volley winner. He earned 15-30 with another potent strike off his normally weaker wing and then earned double breakpoint after scrambling in defence, eventually unloading on a backhand, and then putting away hanging Nadal forehand with a drive volley winner. Federer drew first blood when Nadal missed a crosscourt backhand on the next point.

In the past, particularly in Melbourne, the Swiss had had an issue with being up a break early against the Spaniard but not being able to hold onto his advantage. This time though, Nadal was unable to threaten his opponent’s serve. Federer held to love to consolidate his break and during one stretch in the first set tallied 11 consecutive points on his serve.

Serving for the set at 5-4, Nadal cracked that streak and earned the opening point with a backhand pass winner, but Federer quickly recovered. The Swiss won the next four points and closed out the frame with an ace.

The Plot Thickens

As the second set got underway, Nadal’s way back into the match seemed clear: He needed to up his game.

The Spaniard was quick to assert himself as he served to open the second set. He shouted in celebration after a volley winner to earn 15-all and eventually enjoyed a relatively routine hold courtesy of a second-serve ace.

Furthering the comeback cause was the fact that in the early stages of the second set, as Nadal rose his game, Federer’s floundered into free-fall. The Swiss double-faulted to open his first service game of the set and then missed a forehand into the net after an extended rally. He recovered back to 30-all, but Federer then made a questionable, mediocre approach to the Nadal forehand which the Spaniard handily dispatched down the line to earn his first break opportunity of the evening. Federer fended off the first break chance but granted another when his backhand clipped the tape and fell back to his side. Nadal fired three huge, looping forehands into the Swiss’ backhand corner this time around and Federer fell at the third hurdle; his slice landing in the net.

Nadal Second Set

As the set proceeded, the potent, powerful, and brave ball-striking that the Swiss had unleashed on his opponent in the opening set had lost its calibration. He earned a pair of chances to break back in the third game immediately but committed four errors in the game as Nadal buckled down on his baseline game to consolidate his advantage.

Federer’s errors, particularly off the forehand side, continued to creep into crucial moments and a Nadal return winner earned triple breakpoint for a 4-0 advantage. The Spaniard was unable to capitalize on the first two, but at 30-40, Federer missed another forehand to seemingly, fully surrender the set.

The Swiss seemed to loosen up a bit with the second set appearing to be out of reach. He fired a pair of strong forehands to quickly earn 0-30 and eventually earned one break back with a forehand pass into the open court.

The players proceeded to exchange routine holds, and Federer then held to 15 to at least force Nadal to serve out the second at 5-3.

The Spaniard was up to the challenge, racing through a love service game and evening the match on his first set point after Federer flew another forehand long.

The Turning Point

The opening game of the third set was quite arguably the real turning point of the match and will, perhaps eventually, go down as one of the more significant turning points in tennis history.

Federer raced to a 40-love lead and seemed to be in a position to recover from his second set funk, but Nadal, momentum in hand, refused to give an inch. The Spaniard earned his first point of the third with a forehand winner up the line and eventually fought back to earn a breakpoint when the Swiss netted yet another forehand. But Federer responded with an ace out wide. Federer missed another forehand, but then erased his opponent’s second chance with a nearly identical serve. Nadal dug in until Federer volleyed into the net to earn his third break chance, but once again, a strong serve out wide erased it. After a Nadal error, Federer earned a game point and fired a stinging crosscourt backhand to finish the hold.

The Swiss continued to rediscover his form in Nadal’s opening service game, firing two forehand winners to earn love-30. The Spaniard fought back to 30-all, but Federer followed with a signature half-volley forehand winner down the line. While Nadal was unable to capitalize on a trio of break chances, Federer seized on his first, striking an aggressive forehand return and forcing the Spaniard into error.

Nadal Third Set

Like in the first set, Federer was quick to consolidate his advantage, holding to love for 3-0.

As Nadal had been in the second, the Swiss Maestro was relentless in the third, earning three more break opportunities and aiming for a 4-0 advantage. But the Spaniard was bullish as ever, battling back to hold a game that lasted over 8 minutes.

Undaunted by the missed opportunities, Federer earned another comfortable hold and then once again asserted himself on Nadal’s serve. The Swiss’ backhand caught fire in the sixth game.

“Rafa’s right in front of us. He almost has a look on his face like ‘I cannot believe he continues to time up those returns like that,” Fowler said.

Federer got himself another opportunity for a double break advantage with another stinging backhand crosscourt. He followed that up with even more firepower off his traditionally weaker wing in the form of crosscourt backhand return winner.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” ESPN commentator Patrick McEnroe said.

At 1-5, Nadal finally earned another foothold in a return game, but his pair of break opportunities were snuffed out by a forehand winner and a healthy serve respectively. Eventually, on Federer’s second set point, he solidified his advantage with a deft drop-volley.

Not So Fast

In the long quest for his 18th major title, Roger Federer had only once ever gotten within one set of the accolade and even in that match, the 2014 Wimbledon Final, he had had to fight back in the fourth set to also earn his way into a fifth.

But Nadal wasn’t ready to be on the wrong side of history. The Spaniard noticeably made a pivotal adjustment to his tactics in the early stages of the fourth set by throwing in a flurry of the body serves and disrupting the previously potent Federer firepower.

The first three games of the fourth set went by as relatively routine holds, but as Federer served at 1-2, his game waivered again. The Swiss misfired on two forehands, and the Spaniard capitalized with a clean inside-in forehand winner up the line to earn triple breakpoint. Federer fought off the first but volleyed into the net after Nadal’s dipping backhand pass proved to be too good.

In another epic game within the overall match, Nadal looked to consolidate his advantage and place a fifth set squarely on the horizon. Federer earned the opening point, but Nadal reeled off the next three to get to 40-15. The Swiss wasn’t ready to concede though, firing a forehand winner and then pressuring Nadal into error to fight back to deuce. Federer misfired on a backhand to hand Nadal a game point, but then promptly erased it with a forehand winner into the open court. Another forehand error handed over yet another game point, and the stage was set for what many probably expected, at the time, could go down as the point of the tournament.

With an immaculate, lunging, forehand slice winner, Nadal finished off his mission to consolidate his advantage, and the world could smell a fifth.

In the ensuing game, Federer completely messed up an overhead smash and Nadal capitalized to earn an opportunity for a double break. The Swiss managed to stay in touch and hold, but Nadal provided no hope of a comeback in the fourth, holding to love in consecutive service games and sending himself, his great rival, and the sports world into a winner-take-all fifth.

The Grandest of Finales

The biggest detractor for the 2017 Australian Open Men’s Singles final in terms of all-time great matches is a pretty simple and undeniable one: The players did not seem to be playing at their top levels at the same time…

At least in the first four sets.

With Federer having handily won the first and third sets, and Nadal doing the same in the second and fourth, something had to give.

Both men had plenty to provide.

With Federer serving to open the final frame of the remarkable encounter, Nadal went back to the well which had provided such sustenance throughout his relative dominance in the head-to-head. He relentlessly fired away at Federer’s backhand, resulting in an easy forehand winner up the line for the Spaniard in the opening point. The Swiss misfired on a forehand on the next point, and his opponent smelled blood.

“You get the feeling that Nadal is just locked in now. He’s not going to miss,” Patrick McEnroe said. “Federer’s going to have to do something extraordinary to win this set.”

The Swiss earned his first point of the fifth with a forehand winner, but Nadal fired back immediately and earned double-break point. Federer escaped the first by taking a page out of Nadal’s book and peppering away relentlessly at the backhand corner. Still, on the second, after attempting to redirect a forehand up the line, the Swiss misfired.

Nadal had the lead in the fifth.

A slight stroll down memory lane brings back glorious sights for Nadal fans and frustrating horrors for Federer’s; a recollection of the 2009 Australian Open final between the two legends reveals a potentially similar formula. In that match, Federer battled bravely to force a fifth but showed noticeable signs of fatigue soon after. Nadal broke him early, and the Swiss never found a real opportunity to come back. It was an example of the complete physical, and mental punishment that Nadal is capable of imposing on his opponents and, on this night, it was to the point that Federer famously had a complete emotional breakdown during the trophy ceremony.

Eight years, four children, and ten more head-to-head losses later, Federer found himself staring down a familiar, ever-darkening tunnel.

Made famous for the charisma, beauty, and elegance of his game, Federer’s fighting spirit as a champion has often been down-played. Indeed no knowledgeable analyst or even fan would deny its existence. Still, relative to his fierce rivals and fellow legends Nadal and Djokovic, the Swiss’ legacy has been primarily painted by flash and not fire.

But on this night, the fight of a champion reared its head.

In Nadal’s ensuing service game, Federer seemed to discover his firepower once again. At 15-30, he fired a series of crosscourt backhands with the last proving to be a clean winner. The Swiss punctuated the strike with a roar of “Chum jetze!”

Not to be outdone, Nadal’s fight never wavered either. The Spaniard fought his way back to deuce, only for a net cord to donate another opportunity for his opponent. Nadal fired a forehand winner down the line to erase the third chance and then an almost identical strike resulted in a game point. Federer misfired wildly on a forehand on the next point and found himself in a 0-2 hole.

Federer held to love in his next service game, finishing things off with a backhand winner crosscourt and the pressure immediately swung back to Nadal to maintain his advantage.

The Spaniard raced out to a 30-love lead in the game but then double-faulted. Federer conjured up another strong backhand winner to level at 30-all and moments later fired another to earn another break opportunity. Nadal fended this one off with a backhand winner of his own and eventually held on courtesy of a strong body serve the likes of which Federer could not handle.

There was little drama to be had in Federer’s service games during the middle portion of the set. He held to 15 to stay in touch in the set and, after the changeover, Nadal stepped to the line needing only three more holds to earn his 15th major title and erase years of frustration fueled by injuries and inconsistency.

But Federer was ready in the trenches. The Swiss dug in with immaculate defence on the opening point of the game before eventually fighting his way back into the rally and then launching another backhand winner.

“That says a lot about what Roger needs to do and what he seems willing to do,” John McEnroe said. “He had to do that the hard way.”

Federer 5th Set

The Swiss earned a love-30 advantage after a forehand error from Nadal, but the Spaniard once again fought back to level the game. At 30-all, it was Nadal who blinked for seemingly the first time in the set as he misfired on a routine forehand to hand Federer another opportunity to climb back in the fifth. The Spaniard quickly erased that opportunity and then earned a game point courtesy of an unreturned serve. But another forehand miss followed, and then Federer again ripped a backhand winner to earn his sixth break chance of the set. This time, Federer was up to the challenge. Nadal went back to the well again, ripping relentless forehands into the backhand corner of his opponent. But this time, in perhaps a spot of redemption for the thousands of times previous, the Swiss’ backhand held up with Nadal eventually missing.

In continuing with the trend since the opening game of the set, Federer’s service games continued to fly by. The Swiss fired an ace, put away a volley winner, earned another free point on his serve, and then closed out a love hold with a second-serve ace. During the changeover, TV cameras found Rod Laver. After a brief look around the stadium, the Australian tennis legend joined with thousands in a standing ovation.

“You asked Chris when are these two guys going to start playing their best together,” John McEnroe said. “Well, we’re seeing that right now.”

Once again, the tension swung back to Nadal, but this time, without the one-break cushion that he had garnered half an hour earlier.

Federer didn’t miss a beat. The Swiss mixed in a short slice backhand, seemingly surprising the Spaniard and forcing him to miss long and wide. Federer then earned love-30 with another display of phenomenal firepower off both wings. Nadal then double-faulted to hand over triple breakpoint. The momentum was all going one way, and suddenly it seemed that everyone could sense the end—everyone except for one massively mentally-tough man from Mallorca.

Nadal fought off the first break opportunity with a powerful forehand up the line, and Federer misfired on his next two returns to bring the game to deuce. And then, the stage was set for that fourth set point to be outdone. In a picturesque moment of the legendary match, both men squared off on the baseline rifling groundstrokes with unrelenting potency. Eventually, Federer turned the rally on its head by once again going for broke on a crosscourt backhand. This one wasn’t a winner, but it allowed him to gain the upper hand in the rally. Nadal then did some trademark scrambling to somehow stay in the rally before the two icons of the sport once again exchanged groundstrokes. But in a moment it was over.

In yet another redemptive moment, Federer fired a lunging, reaching forehand winner down the line; a shot with eerie reminiscence to a Nadal shot of the same variety in their match in Melbourne 8 years ago.

Once again showing the fight of a champion, Nadal came right back to erase the break chance with a service winner up the middle, but Federer was relentless. The Swiss launched another volley of ferocious forehands to earn another chance and then conjured up one more outstanding backhand return to earn the crucial break.

“Federer digging deeper than he’s ever had to,” Fowler said.

And of course, even with Federer serving for the match, it couldn’t end easily.

Never one to give up, Nadal quickly earned an advantage behind a backhand return winner and an error from his opponent. The Swiss then fired an ace, but the Spaniard came right back with more aggressive groundstrokes and an eventual volley winner to earn two chances to break back.

“We didn’t think he was going to go down easy, did we?” Patrick McEnroe said.

Facing double breakpoint, Federer erased the first with an ace and the second with a forehand winner. He earned his first championship point after a service winner, but then missed a forehand. That was Nadal’s last point of the evening. Federer fired another ace to earn a second championship point and then painted the outside of the line with a forehand winner. Nadal challenged the call, adding one final bit of suspense to an evening already saturated with it, but the winner was confirmed, and so was history.

Federer jumped for joy, screamed with delight, and then knelt with tears as the emotion and reality of the achievement seemed to sink in.

“The remarkable Roger Federer. A victory has never been sweeter than this one right here, right now, because it’s over Rafa,” Fowler said. “He told us that before the final; this would be his biggest win.”

Geoff Bruce

Tennis fan and writer. I have written about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets.

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