When the time comes to weigh the greatest achievements of Roger Federer’s glittering Grand Slam career, certain moments will resonate above all others.
There is that first Wimbledon victory back in 2003, which preceded a four-year hegemony over the men’s game that saw him surge to 11 majors by the age of 25. In 2007 he won the Australian Open without losing a set, before matching Bjorn Borg’s sequence of five straight Wimbledon titles; in 2008 he matched Pete Sampras with a fifth US Open crown, joining both the Swede and the American as five-time winners at two different majors.
Then came the feted midseason of 2009, when in the space of a month he completed his career Grand Slam at Roland Garros before claiming his 15th major at Wimbledon, surpassing Sampras’s trophy haul in the process.
Even in such company, even all these years later, even ignoring the six-month layoff that preceded this seven-match surge at Melbourne Park, Australian Open 2017 might well be considered among the grandest of his 18 slams.
At 35, Federer is now the oldest Grand Slam champion in his own lifetime. Australia’s Ken Rosewall is the only other man to claim majors in the Open era after his 35th birthday, the last of which came at the 1972 US Open at the age of 37.
Only two men in Open Era history have waited longer for their next Grand Slam title. Seventeen majors have passed since Wimbledon 2012, eclipsing the 16-Slam gap between Andre Agassi’s victories at the 1995 Australian Open and 1999 French Open. Nineteen majors came and went between Boris Becker’s 1991 and 1996 Australian Open titles, and 21 by the time Arthur Ashe followed his 1970 Australian Open triumph with victory at Wimbledon in 1975.
Not since 1982 has a man defeated four top-10 seeds to win a major. Mats Wilander beat Ivan Lendl, Vitas Gerulaitis, Jose Luis Clerc and Guillermo Vilas to win the French Open that year; Federer has beaten Tomas Berdych, Kei Nishikori, Stan Wawrinka and now Rafael Nadal.
That it should be Nadal who stood between Federer and this unlikeliest of triumphs only serves to add to its legend. The 14-time Grand Slam champion has long dominated his rivalry with the Swiss, an authority that reached far beyond his clay court prowess in their 35 meetings.
Nadal came into the match with a 9-2 record against Federer at Grand Slams, incorporating wins on clay, grass and hard courts. This, their ninth showdown in a major final, was Nadal’s first Grand Slam defeat against the 18-time Grand Slam champion away from Wimbledon’s Centre Court.
Federer’s place in the pantheon of tennis greats was assured long ago, but the case for his place within it has only intensified since his previous Grand Slam triumph. In the five years since that 17th major win at Wimbledon in 2012, Nadal has collected three majors. Novak Djokovic, who then had five, now has a dozen. Back in 2012, Serena Williams had won her 14th major the previous day on Centre Court; yesterday at Rod Laver Arena, she claimed her 23rd – an unparalleled trophy haul in the Open era. Who knows where the great G.O.A.T. debate will have taken us in another five, 10, or 50 years’ time – all that can be said with certainty is Federer’s stock has risen these past two weeks in Melbourne.
So there you have it. Roger Federer, a father of four who last year took six months off work to recover from arthroscopic knee surgery, has won seven tennis matches at the 2017 Australian Open – three in five sets – to hoist the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup for a fifth time. In the process, he has defied age, critics, seeding and logic, and reaffirmed the brilliant, hopeless romance of sport.
It truly was the most special of victories for the most special of players.