He wiped away a few more on Sunday as he became the oldest man to win a Grand Slam singles title in 45 years. He managed it by defeating Nadal, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3, to win the Australian Open for the fifth time.
“You don’t know if they ever come back, these moments,” said Federer, who had not won a major title since Wimbledon in 2012 and who had not beaten Nadal in a Grand Slam final since Wimbledon in 2007.
Federer played here with verve and precision, but had to scrap his way through three five-set matches in the final four rounds, receiving plenty of treatment between duels. Although he did not have to deal with the world’s two leading players, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, who were upset in the first week, Federer did face top 10 opponents aplenty.
He defeated four of them: Tomas Berdych, Kei Nishkori, Stan Wawrinka and — most important — Nadal, the swashbuckling Spanish left-hander who has so often thwarted Federer on big occasions but who failed to seal the deal on Sunday despite taking a 3-1 lead in the fifth set.
That was perhaps when Federer’s tempered expectations helped him most. This really did feel like gravy after all the major meals he has enjoyed through the years, and he stuck with the game plan he and his coaches, Severin Luethi and Ivan Ljubicic, had discussed.
“I told myself to play free,” Federer said. “You play the ball. You don’t play the opponent. Be free in your head. Be free in your shots. Go for it. The brave will be rewarded here. I didn’t want to go down just making shots, seeing forehands rain down on me from Rafa.”
Few could have foreseen this final when the Australian Open began. This was Federer’s first official tournament after a long break because of knee problems in 2016. Nadal ended last season early, too, after an injury to his left wrist. And yet the occasion felt so familiar, inciting global interest and nostalgia for the days when Federer-Nadal summit meetings were a staple.
But this was not business as usual for Federer. His one-handed backhand has long been his weak link against Nadal, whose whipping topspin forehand has forced Federer to hit too many backhands above the shoulder — and too many backhands, period.
Federer took a more proactive approach Sunday, driving his backhand much of the match instead of relying on his more neutral slice. He ripped through his backhand returns as well, and Nadal — not quite at his relentless best — was unable to grind him down. With the match in his grasp, Nadal wavered while Federer let his elegant strokes fly.
“He did not surprise me,” Nadal said. “He was playing aggressively, and I understand that in a match against me. I don’t think it would have been intelligent to try to get into too many long rallies from the baseline. I don’t think he would have won. He went for it, and it was the right thing for him to do.”
The result was a brisk five-setter by Nadal’s standards. The Spaniard required 4 hours 56 minutes to beat Federer’s stylistic acolyte, Grigor Dimitrov, and his one-handed backhand in the semifinals.
Sunday’s final lasted 3:38, and that included a medical timeout that Federer took off court after losing the fourth set.
Federer has rarely taken that liberty through the years, but he did the same before the fifth set of his semifinal victory over his Swiss compatriot Wawrinka, citing a groin injury.
Federer’s decision to take a timeout again on Sunday drew criticism from the former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash of Australia, who said on BBC Radio that it was “legal cheating” to interrupt a long match because of weariness.
Federer disagreed and explained that his leg had been bothering him since he beat the young American Noah Rubin in the second round. He said that on Sunday, he began feeling pain in his right quadriceps “midway through the second set” and “the groin started to hurt midway through the third set.”
“I just told myself, ‘The rules are there that you can use them,’” Federer said. “I think I’ve led the way for 20 years, so I think to be critical there is exaggerating. I’m the last guy to call a medical timeout.”
The break did not help Federer start quickly in the fifth set. Nadal broke his serve in the opening game and jumped out to that 3-1 lead. But with his chances appearing to fade, Federer took control, breaking Nadal’s serve in the long and edgy sixth and eighth games of the set.
All Federer had to do then was serve out the championship at 5-3, but he quickly fell behind by 15-40 before saving one break point with an ace and the next with a forehand winner.
On his first match point, he made a shaky forehand error, but converted the second with a looping midcourt forehand that appeared to land on the sideline for a winner.
Nadal challenged and shrugged, hands on his hips. The review upheld the initial call, and Federer pumped his arms over his head and leapt with delight.
“Of course it’s slightly awkward to win this way,” Federer said. “Nevertheless emotions poured out of me. I was incredibly happy.”
This victory, he said, was unique. “I can’t compare this to any other one except maybe the French Open in ’09,’’ Federer said, referring to his only championship in that event, which came after Nadal had been upset in the fourth round.
Federer is the second oldest man to win a major singles title in the Open era, behind Ken Rosewall, who won the 1970 United States Open when he was approaching his 36th birthday, the 1971 Australian Open at 36 and the 1972 Australian Open at 37.
Federer has long admired Rosewall, Rod Laver and the leading players of Australia’s golden tennis era. He has helped create a new team competition called the Laver Cup that will start in September, and Laver presented the trophy to him on Sunday night, at Rod Laver Arena.
Federer’s victory over Nadal significantly increased his chances of remaining the career leader in men’s Grand Slam singles titles. With 18, he has a more comfortable lead over Nadal, who is tied for second on the list with Pete Sampras at 14.
“That’s the smallest part, to be honest,” Federer said. “For me, it’s all about the comeback, about an epic match with Rafa again.”
Nadal has long dominated their series and still leads, 23-12. But on matches played off clay, a surface on which Nadal has a huge edge, the tally is now 10-10.
Nadal won their most memorable final, a five-setter at Wimbledon in 2008 that ended in the twilight and is a candidate for the greatest match ever.
But Sunday’s lengthy test of talent and perseverance will surely make the Federer-Nadal short list as well, especially if it turns out to be their last mutual hurrah in a Grand Slam final.
“Being honest, in these kinds of matches I won a lot of times against him,” Nadal said. “Today he beat me, and I just congratulate him.”
Nadal is just 30, five years younger than Federer, who made an intriguing comment to the crowd at the award ceremony.
“I hope to see you next year,” he said. “If not, this was a wonderful run here, and I can’t be more happy to have won here tonight.”
The last man to claim a Grand Slam singles title as a 17th seed was Sampras, when he won the 2002 United States Open. He eventually retired without playing another match on tour.
Federer, married and a father of four children, has a full schedule planned for this season, and he emphasized later that he hoped to return to Melbourne next year. But he still sounded much, much closer to the end than the beginning, as he and his entourage prepared to, in his words, “party like rock stars” in the predawn hours in Melbourne.
“I mean, this is all about knowing that I have only so much tennis left in me,” he said.
He no longer needed to wonder if there was an 18th Grand Slam left in him, too.
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