“Play free,” Roger Federer told himself. For the first time in the match, in the final set of the 2017 Australian Open final, he was behind on the scoreboard. Rafael Nadal, ever the nemesis, led by a break – grunting louder, hitting deeper and keeping the 35-year-old on the run.
But he was ready for this. He had spoken with coaches Ivan Ljubicic and Severin Luthi about how to react to just this scenario. Eight times before he had faced Nadal with a Grand Slam title on the line; six times he had left with the finalist’s plate. The Spaniard has always been Federer’s greatest enigma.
The answer, this time: Play free. “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.”
Rewarded, he was. Sat alongside the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup in the wee hours of Monday morning, Federer cut a relaxed, tired, satisfied figure in his champion’s press conference. Given his night – given his fortnight at Melbourne Park – all three states were understandable.
“I think this one will take more time to sink in,” said the 18-time Grand Slam champion, who insisted ahead of the final that he had targeted a quarterfinal berth in his first major after six months on the sidelines.
“When I go back to Switzerland, I'll think, ‘Wow’.
“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.”
Try as he might to forget it, Federer was playing The Opponent, a man who has shaped his career like no other. Nadal is not the only key rivalry in his career, the Swiss insisted – that would be to overlook the likes of Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt, and Novak Djokovic.
“But Rafa definitely has been very particular in my career,” Federer conceded. “I think he made me a better player. Him and a couple more players have done the most to do that to me because the way his game stacks up with me, it's a tricky one. I've said that openly. It remains for me the ultimate challenge to play against him. So it's definitely very special.
“I said that also 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 now. Last time, I guess, was 2007 at Wimbledon in a five-setter. Now I was able to do it again.
“We're both on a comeback. Like I said on the court, it would have been nice for both of us to win, but there's no draws in tennis. It's brutal sometimes.”
With his fifth Australian Open title, Federer becomes the first man in Open era history to have won three majors at least five times, alongside his five US Open titles and seven Wimbledon crowns. It also ends a 17-major drought dating back to the last of the triumphs at the All England Club in 2012.
The number 17 had buzzed around him from the moment Federer arrived in Melbourne. Returning in 2017, with those 17 slams to his name, he entered the draw as the No.17 seed – the same seeding as his idol Pete Sampras when the American won the US Open in 2002 in what proved to be the final match of his career.
So you could forgive the press pack for digging into the semantics of his on-court interview during the trophy ceremony, when the 35-year-old said he hoped to be back at Melbourne Park next year. “If not,” he added, “this was a wonderful run here and I can’t be more happy to have won here tonight.”
Fear not, said Federer – this was no veiled swansong address. It ran deeper than that, told a different side to the story of his injury-ravaged 2016. In sporting terms, he was introduced to his own mortality, and if is not to be the master of his own destiny from here on out, he wanted to let the fans know just how much they had meant to him.
“You never know when your next Grand Slam is going to be, if ever,” Federer said. “You never know if you're going to have an opportunity at this stage, I felt I could thank so many people at once. It's a live audience. It's a moment for me to be appreciative of them.
“Yeah, I mean, look, I've had a tough year last year. Three five-setters are not going to help. I just meant it the way I meant it. There wasn't something planned behind it, that this is my last Australian Open. I hope can I come back, of course. That's my hope right now.”
Another facet of that sporting mortality brought a smile to Federer’s face: the thought of him helping Ljubicic to relax ahead of the final, a role-reversal that lightened his mood and spoke volumes about the enormity of this achievement to Federer’s camp.
“It's obviously special for the entire team. It was his first Grand Slam final as a player or as a coach. Obviously he was nervous all day – I tried to calm him down. The same thing with my physio, too. I think I can sense that this is not something that he's seen so many times. Where Severin, he was totally relaxed about it,” he said.
“It's beautiful for all of us. I know how happy they are because they are more than just a coach or a physio or whatever. They're all my friends. So we spent a lot of time, you know, talking about am I going to get back to 100 percent, and if I did, what would it require to win a Grand Slam.
“Now we made it. We're going to be partying like rock stars tonight. I can tell you that.”