At the grand old age of 35 and after six months out with a knee injury, even the most fervent of Federer fans would probably have admitted that it was very unlikely the Swiss would win an 18th Grand Slam title.
Five long years had passed since he last won a major (Wimbledon 2012) and after several near but yet so far misses in recent times, it seemed certain Federer would have to settle for 17 replica trophies on his mantelpiece.
But the maestro has never been a man to shirk an opportunity when one comes calling or to worry about battling back from adversity, as rare as those moments have been. In 2009, when he one won his one and only French Open crown, he capitalized on Rafael Nadal’s early fourth-round exit to finally win on clay. Albeit, it wasn’t plain sailing.
It has to be said that Federer probably wouldn’t have won in Paris that year if he had had to meet Nadal in the final – given that he had lost three previous Roland Garros finals to Rafa before his triumph over Robin Soderling.
There was an element of good fortune back then and when defending Wimbledon champion Nadal pulled out of the grass-court event that same year, it left Federer an open goal to sweep to another major. Good fortune has often favoured the Swiss and the same fate awaited in Melbourne, too.
Early knockouts for Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic meant that he escaped the World No1 in the quarter-finals and the Serbian in a potential final.
People often knock Federer’s major haul and point to the fact his first seven slams were claimed before Nadal’s ‘time’ and against lesser opponents. There’s an element of truth there but Federer’s a master at controlling the controllables and seizing his moment.
But, it was this unexpected 35th meeting with the 30-year-old – a man who had crushed the Swiss in each of their past four major finals (leading 6-2 in Grand Slam final clashes overall and 23-11 in their overall head-to-head) – which presented Federer with a unique chance to banish the demons and doubters for good.
Given the manner of their lopsided rivalry, it was fitting Federer had to beat the man who had bullied him so many times to truly make the front page of the tennis history book his own.
For me, he had to win this match and an 18th title to be called the greatest ever, giving him virtually unreachable breathing distance between Nadal’s haul of 14 (and Novak Djokovic’s 12).
If Nadal had won, there’s a debate to be had that the Spaniard is right at the top of the list but Federer came through his ultimate history-proving acid test, when age, injury and lack of tennis matches were very much against him.
In Melbourne on Sunday night, he proved once again his attacking tennis and highest level, despite being a few years past his peak, is the best there has ever been.
To pick himself up from an injury time-out and raise his game, after losing the fourth set and a break of serve in the first game of the fifth, was truly breathtaking to watch.
He left it all out there on the Rod Laver Arena court to fight back and level the decider at 3-3 – going for the lines at every opportunity with his famed famous forehand wing.
Federer then rolled back the years, outlasting Nadal on the baseline, by winning a spellbinding 26-shot rally – on his way to eventually breaking to go 5-3 up. He then dug deep to serve it out despite having being 0-30 down and faced break points.
Overall, the Swiss hit 73 winners and won 76 per cent of his first service points, sending down 20 aces in the process – pure vintage Federer.
Given he started this year’s Australian Open as the No17 ranked player, the fact he is the first man to beat four top 10 players en route to a major title since Mats Wilander at the 1982 French Open is testament to his astonishing play. The record books hold heavy weight in his favour now.
Add in two more ingredients, one being the immaculate way he carries himself on and off the court and his much-loved classical style of play, then there can be no argument that he’s the complete tennis package. So what next? The adulation Federer receives everywhere he goes and his love of travelling with his large family, which is rare for a tennis player, suggests he’ll play on for a little while yet.
But, in his post-presentation speech, you could see Federer was truly content with this achievement, one he said he couldn’t quite see coming, and he’d be a happy man if he to had to walk away from the game today.
Federer’s future is in his hands and I’d expect him to play with even more aggression now that the chains of history are off. Dare I say it, he may even sneak another Wimbledon win.
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