by Emaad Khan
The Australian open final marked a historic match between two legends of the sport. On one side of the court was Roger Federer, at the age of 35, coming back after a six-month hiatus due to an injury, dreaming of his 18th grand slam title that has eluded him since Wimbledon 2012, and on the other side, his most fierce rival to date: the flamboyant Spaniard Rafael Nadal, who has had his share of injuries as well. As someone posted online: “If you were in coma and came back 10 years later, it would seem nothing has changed”, because the William Sisters made it into the women’s final while two of the best tennis players of our era were in the men’s final.
This epic rivalry between the two, also known as the Fedal rivalry, dates back to the thrilling matches that they have had over the numerous grand slam finals, Rafa having an advantage over the Swiss on a head to head basis, which is 13 to 23, a slight improvement for the Swiss after the Aussie Open Final and Indian Wells. But this was a little different. This time no one thought either of the two will be able to make it to the 4th round, let alone the final of the tournament. Federer despite his age and injury, seeded at number 17 playing against Rafa, who also due to injuries had not been playing at the top level. However, both put in the effort to come back with a big bang.
The departure of the two top seeds, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, helped to open up the draw; still there were a lot of challenging games which both had to go through to make it to the final. Roger had tough matches and the epic final was his 3rd five setter match, which is quite difficult for any player, let alone a 35 year old ‘standing on one leg’, due to issues in his leg muscle. But resilience and the will to never give up are what make a champion. Deep in the fifth set, Federer somehow hung on and fought his way to victory in an epic match, and it felt like the whole Melbourne crowd was praying for Roger to win, while people around the world showed their joy through social media.
He really made people believe in him and defied the odds when no one ever thought he could win – even Federer himself said that it felt unreal to win a 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 match. It was a great match, a dream match for all the fans, facing difficulty in deciding who to support, the Melbourne crowd supported Roger a little more, some supporting both of them and claiming that it didn’t matter who won; the match itself was much bigger for than the winner. Roger in his victory speech said that in tennis there has to be a winner, but today if it was possible, “I would share this trophy with Rafa”, showing the class of the man and his good friendship with his rival.
“I’m happy for you. I would have been happy to lose to you,” was the reply from Rafa. The comeback was perfect as it was. It has been a difficult last six months for Roger and he said that he wasn’t sure whether he would be able to play at this level again, let alone be in the final against Nadal. He also said in jest: “Against Rafa it’s always epic, this one means a lot to me because he’s caused me problems over the years.”
Roger had to change his game and play a more aggressive game of tennis to earn himself a spot in the final against Rafa. Nadal said he was pleased with his play in Australia, saying that he felt he was back at a very high level. “I’m going to keep fighting during the whole season and for sure, to come back here for many years and keep trying to have this trophy,” said Nadal. “That is the third time that I have [the runner-up trophy]. This is beautiful but not as good as the trophy!”
Roger put on a great show with great service, hitting Nadal’s top spin, and he took balls off the short hop, between a half volley and a block shot. By stepping up and changing his game he created angle and pulled Rafa wide, by speeding up the pace. Nadal was the fourth top-10 player to fall to Federer in Melbourne, following No. 10, Tomas Berdych, No. 5, Kei Nishikori and No. 4, Stan Wawrinka. As good as Roger is, he still had to change his game according to the players and had to adapt, but how did he pull this off? In my opinion the change of coach might have had an impact.
The Swiss maestro brought in Ivan Ljubicic, the Croatian former world number 3. It is evident that he has helped him with his serve and mentality on how to play more aggressive tennis. Before this he was working with the legendary Stefan Edberg. However, Federer still has Severin Luthi, in his corner, who still takes the responsibilities of the main coach. Furthermore his coaching staff includes Daniel Troxler and Pierre Paganini, physiotherapist and fitness trainer. Even at the highest level, after being a champion multiple times, Roger had to change and bring in someone new who was capable in helping him some basic changes to his game.
This fairy-tale comeback for Roger did not end in Australia, he has continued this form to the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells defeating Nadal again – the first time he has done it thrice in a row after Basel, Melbourne and now at Indian Wells. Roger had to go through a number of young upcoming competitors in a group of death situation, but fittingly, overcame all obstacles as he always does, to then defeat his fellow countryman, Stan the Man Wawrinka, who in my opinion will continuously be known as the other Swiss player, always playing in the shadow of the great Roger Federer.
Then came the Miami Open, which in my opinion was tougher than Indian Wells as he went through Berdych, Nick Kyrgios and Nadal to win strong in the end, let’s see if Roger has enough gas in the tank to win the French Open or will he chose his tournaments wisely and take a break eyeing Wimbledon.