Nadal’s silver lining

Rafael Nadal didn’t win on Sunday night, but still left Australia a winner after a turbulent past 12 months.

Federer v Nadal match highlights (Final)

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Federer v Nadal match highlights (Final)

It is a match that will be judged foremost on the result when history reflects. But for the two biggest names the game has seen, this was a match that meant more than being the man accepting the winner’s trophy from fellow great, Rod Laver.

Three times now Rafael Nadal has stood graciously in defeat after the title match at Melbourne Park.

His triumph over his great rival Roger Federer in the 2009 final remains his sole Australian Open title – one of 14 majors.

Victory would have pitched the Spaniard into Laver’s league of having won each of the four Grand Slams twice.

To even the casual fan, these two names are special.

And as Sunday’s final entered a fifth set, all knew this was something special.

Three hours and 37 minutes of momentum swings spurred the stadium into fever-pitch at each turn.

Nadal, despite holding points for 4-1, would lose the last five games of the match.

Match report: Federer’s high five

Defeat is a bitter pill to swallow, and for either player there would have been greater validity for a heavier heart than in many previous defeats, given their injury struggles and Grand Slam title droughts of recent years.

“Of course, winning an event like this is so important. For me, if I won that one, (it would) be amazing,” Nadal said.

“But the real thing is what makes me more happy, more than the titles, is going on the court and feeling that I can enjoy the sport.

“Today I am enjoying the sport. Last year I only had the chance to enjoy the sport between Indian Wells and Madrid, because in Madrid I got injury in quarterfinals.

“At this moment in my career, more than titles – for sure if I am playing here, I believe that I am going to win titles – (but) more than all these kind of things is being healthy enough to work the way I need to work, to fight for the things I want to fight (for).”

This Australian Open capped a remarkable change in fortunes for Nadal. He took down rising star Alexander Zverev in five, plus top-tenners Gael Monfils and Milos Raonic and the in-form Grigor Dimitrov, again in five.

AO Expert: It all came down to this

After a first-round defeat at Melbourne Park last year and having to withdraw from his French Open and Wimbledon campaigns due to a wrist injury, there were rightful doubts as to how many more times the 30-year-old could pick himself up off the deck again – the disappointments, the rehabilitations, the what-might-have-beens. For a man who has already achieved so much, the tribulations would only be allowed to play on his mind so much.

The opening of his tennis academy in his home town of Manacor last year and his long-term girlfriend Xisca Perello making her first trip to Melbourne in their 10 years together fuelled speculation his time on tour was well into its twilight zone.

And it still might be. Only now Nadal looks ahead to a 2017 with genuine prospects of adding more Grand Slam titles to his swag.

His beloved claycourt season is ripe for the picking, and an astonishing 10th French Open crown is well and truly on the cards.

“I cannot predict what's going on in the future,” he said. “I just think that I worked hard to be where I am. I believe that playing like this, good things can happen – can happen here on this surface, but especially can happen on clay.

“If I am able to play like this, to hold matches like I hold the other day, and recover well as I recovered, but on clay I recover better than here, then the opponents don't get that many free points, and I am playing solid from the baseline.

“If I made that happen, I think I can keep having success on hard courts, but on clay it can be special.”

The Spaniard had nothing but praise for his great rival – for being the aggressor in the final set, for taking risks.

Federer still trails the pair’s head-to-head ledger 23-12, 6-3 in Grand Slams, but the 35-year-old has pulled four clear with a record 18th major title.

How would this five-set battle stack up in their rivalry, given the trials they had overcome to get there, when neither was genuinely expected to reach the title decider?

“I don't know now. I just feel that has been a good match, five-set match, in a very special final for the fans and for us,” Nadal said.

“Is great to play against him again after a couple of years without making that happen in a big final.”

Two greats given scant chance of making it happen at this level.

Dare to dream it could happen again.

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