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By Richard Pagliaro | Sunday, January 29, 2017

 
Roger Federer

Roger Federer reeled off five straight games subduing Rafael Nadal in a five-set thriller to capture his 18th career Grand Slam crown.

Photo credit: Mark Peterson/Corleve

The dream final escalated into a dramatic fifth-set duel.

Contesting his 100th career Australian Open match, Roger Federer was in no mood for moral victories.

More: Serena Williams Wins 23rd Grand Slam Title

The 35-year-old Federer delivered a fiery comeback to capture his 18th career Grand Slam championship and solidify his status as the Greatest Of All Time.

In a rematch of iconic rivals that matched the massive hype, Federer fought back from 1-3 down in the decider digging down to reel off five straight games for a rousing 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 triumph over Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final.

It is Federer's fifth Australian Open championship, his first Grand Slam title since he won the 2012 Wimbledon crown and it caps the most remarkable run of his career.



"This one stands alone," Federer said. "It's so different from all the others.

"To have the moment when you wait for something for a long time it feels that much better plus it was against Rafa. It was after the comeback from six months of not playing. I also thought for a second it’s probably not going to happen tonight. I worked very hard for it. I just told myself I had to really, really fight. In the end, it's mental and that's why I was able to turn it around in the fifth."

Playing his first tournament since a six-month layoff, Federer fought off three Top 10 opponents in five-set victories—Kei Nishikori, Stan Wawrinka and Nadal—and a nagging leg injury with a brilliant triumph.

The 1-3 deficit, spiking issues with the right leg, fading accuracy from the baseline and a fierce rival who had won 23 of their 34 prior meetings all conspired to drain Federer.

Straddling the baseline, he began ripping shots on the rise. Federer, who thumped his one-handed backhand with authority throughout, cracked 23 of his 73 winners in the deciding set.  

"Tennis is a tough sport," said Federer, who beat Nadal for the third time in nine major finals. "There are no draws, but if there was a draw tonight I would have been happy to share it with Rafa. I wasn’t sure if I was ever gonna make it here, but here I am and we made it."



The Swiss master attained a milestone moment: Federer is the first man in history to win five or more titles at three different Grand Slams.

Battling to the final ball, Nadal earned double break point in the final game. Federer denied both then slashed his 20th ace for a second championship point. Firing a forehand winner on the line, Federer waited as Nadal challenged the call leaving the championship hanging in the balance.

When Hawk-Eye replay showed the ball pierced the sideline, an ecstatic Federer bounced up and down in joy claiming his first Australian Open title since 2010.

The 30-year-old Nadal, who may well have been drained by his punishing four hour, 56-minute victory over Grigor Dimitrov in the semifinals, was pure class in defeat.

"I think it was a great match probably Roger deserved it a little bit more than me,” said Nadal, who smiled off the pain giving a gracious speech to fans after a gut-wrenching loss. “I just gonna keep trying. I feel like I am back at a very high level. I am going to keep fighting the whole season to have a great season and keep coming back to try to win this trophy."

Eight years after Nadal fended off Federer in the 2009 Australian Open final, the 17th-seeded Swiss avenged that defeat becoming the lowest-ranked man to capture the Melbourne title since 18th-ranked SwedeThomas Johansson toppled Marat Safin to take the title 15 years ago.

Federer's 18th Grand Slam championship widens the gap with Nadal, who was bidding for his 15th major and first since he ruled the 2014 Roland Garros.

Contesting his first Melbourne final in seven years, Federer got off to a flying start in the record ninth Grand Slam final meeting between the rivals. 

Fighting off a wide serve with a sharp backhand return down the line, Federer swooped forward firing a forehand swing volley for double break point. When Nadal nudged a stretch backhand wide, Federer converted the first break point of the match for 4-3. Serving with new balls, Federer streamed through a 70-second hold sliding an ace down the middle to stamp his second straight love hold.

Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer

The fluid Federer serve was the key stroke to the first set. Sliding his fourth ace out wide, the Swiss seized a clean opening set in 34 minutes. Federer won 14 of 15 points on his first serve and dropped just four points on serve in establishing a one-set lead.

Resetting with a bathroom break, Nadal returned recharged. Hammering his heavy lefty topspin forehand high to his rival’s one-handed backhand, Nadal carved out his first break in the second game. In a grinding eight-minute game, he denied a pair of break points extending the second-set lead to 3-0.

Winless in five major finals outside of Paris when losing the opening set, Nadal played with the urgency of a man seeking retribution in the second while his opponent lost the range on his forehand.

Mis-firing on his forehand, Federer fell into a triple break point hold then scattered a diagonal forehand wide as Nadal snatched a second break for a 4-0 lead 24 minutes into the second set. His white t-shirt was saturated with sweat, as if he’d been dipped in the nearby Yarra River, as Nadal branded his second straight love hold to level the match at a set apiece.




Squandering a 40-love lead to open the third set, Federer stood up to the test driving three aces wide in nearly the same spot to fend off three break points. The 17th-seeded Swiss fought through a tight test with a four-ace game to hold.

Straddling the baseline, Federer made a slick pick-up of a snazzy forehand off the short hop for break point. Moving a foot to his left in anticipation of the wide serve, Federer coaxed Nadal into a body serve down the middle and hammered a deep forehand return to earn the break. Slashing successive aces out wide, the four-time champion rolled through a love hold for 3-0.




The 2009 champion fought off three break points knocking a forehand down the line to cap a hard-fought hold in the fourth game. Striking his forehand with much more conviction than he had in the second set, Federer fired a running forehand winner stamping his second straight love hold for 4-1.

Impeccable serving and an incisive backhand powered Federer through the third. Dancing in the doubles alley, he drilled a diagonal backhand return to break for 5-1. Federer fought off a pair of break points streaking forehand to caress a backhand drop volley for a two sets to one lead. Federer fired six aces and won 18 of 22 first-serve points in the third set.

The oldest major men’s finalist in 43 years hit a lull in the fourth game of the fourth set. Federer missed a routine forehand and Nadal pounced breaking at 15 for 3-1. One of the most electric exchanges of the match ended with Nadal stretching for a running squash shot forehand that kissed the top of the tape as crossed stretching his lead to 4-1.



An empowered Nadal charged through the fourth set without facing a break point. The left-hander threw down a love hold forcing a fifth with a flurry of fist pumps as he walked to his chair. For the first time since their 2009 Australian Open final, Roger and Rafa would go the distance.




Leaving the court for a medical time out, Federer, who also took treatment in his semifinal win over Stan Wawrinka, confronted immediate danger in the final set. Dropping deep behind the baseline to start the decider, Nadal played lock-down defense squeezing out the opening break when his rival scattered a forehand. Serving with more precision, Nadal fended off three break points for a 2-0 lead he would extend to 3-1.

Taking massage treatment on his right thigh after a love hold, Federer went back to work reaching love-30 in the sixth game. When Nadal sailed a forehand, Federer had his fifth break point of the set only to see the Spaniard save it with a forehand winner. A jolting backhand gave Federer a sixth break point and when Nadal narrowly missed an inside-out forehand the crowd erupted as Federer was back on serve 3-all.

"I think I started to play more clear again," Federer said of his fifth-set fightback. "I told myself if you’re gonna win this match, it’s only by playing up in the court. And I felt he was doing the old body serve midway through the fourth set and the fifth as well and I struggled to fight it off really.

"Once I told myself just be offensive, take it early, take the speed, the court is gonna give you something – it’s what I told myself against Stan too – all you need is acouple good connections and then of course you need a bit of luck here and there as well. I think that’s what paid off for me in the end. I think I went to get victory and it paid off.”

A revitalized Federer rolled through a two-ace game for 4-3 then attacked to start the next game.

A tight Nadal dumped a double fault into the middle of the net for triple break point. He fought off all three, including drawing a shanked backhand return to get back to deuce. An eye-popping rally that matched the longest of the match ended with Federer flicking a forehand winner down the line for a fourth break point. Nadal curled a serve winner to save it.



Attacking again Federer earned a fifth break point. This time Nadal could not cope with the stress. He knocked a running forehand into net. Federer would serve for an 18th Grand Slam crown.

Still, Nadal kept scrapping earning double break point. Federer cracked an ace to save the first and crunched an inside-out forehand to save the second. The cliff-hanger ending added to the drama as both players—and the capacity crowd—heled their collective breath before Hawk-Eye showed the shot singed the sideline.

Bouncing up and down in joy, Federer seemed on the verge of years.



The Grand Slam king may well look back on his 18th major as his most satisfying.

"I was just trying to play the ball and not the opponent," Federer said. "I just toldmyself I just really, really have to fight. When I talked to Severin and Ivan, my coaches, they just told me at the end of the day it’s mental. It’s not your game. Your game is there.

"So I think that’s why I was able to turn it around in the fifth. It’s those little things that matter."

Eleven months after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery and years after many wrote him off, Federer found major fulfillment against his archrival.

Eight years after Federer dissolved in tears tormented by a painful five-set defeat to Nadal, positive emotion and a willingness to rip his backhand ignited a comeback that confirmed greatness.


 

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