By Richard Kent, Staff Reporter
Roger Federer may or may not be the greatest male tennis player of all-time, if such an individual even exists. But there should be little doubt that he is the most beloved and influential. His ATP career ended Friday night with a loss, playing with his greatest rival Rafael Nadel in doubles at the Laver Cup in London.
He has played many significant matches in his career, but perhaps none quite as significant as the 2017 Australian Open. He had been written off by many as a contender for winning majors or world no. 1. All that is but those closest to the Swiss maestro. And then the near impossible happened.
To say that Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic were the favorites heading into the 2017 Australian Open is a major understatement. Djokovic had won the event in 2008, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016. Murray was no. 1 in the world, off of a great 2016.
Federer was somewhat of an afterthought, if that is even possible when describing him.
In order to fully appreciate Federer entering the Australian, it is necessary to analyze his 2016 campaign. It began on January in Australia. He entered the Australian Open as the no. 3 seed and after defeated Tomas Berdych in straight sets to advance to his 12th Australian semifinal and a date with Djokovic.
He lost the match and with it, Djokovic took his first lead in their series.
The next day while he was running bath water for one of his daughters at their Melbourne hotel, he slipped and twisted his left knee. It was diagnosed as a torn meniscus and Federer had the first surgery of his long career a week later.
His recovery went quicker than expected and after missing the Indian Wells Masters announced that he would enter the Miami Open. He drew Juan Martin del Potro, but had to pull out due to a stomach virus.
He vowed to be back for the clay season and entered the Monte Carlo masters where he fell to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in 3 sets. A back injury kept him out of the Madrid Open. He played the Italian Open and after a win over teenage sensation Alexander Zverev, fell tamely to Dominic Thiem.
It was evident that his back was not 100% and his fitness level was off. He withdrew from the French Open, which marked the end of his record setting 65 consecutive appearances at majors, which began at the 2000 Australian Open. It was clear that Federer had not taken enough time off to repair his meniscus issue.
He did participate in the grass court season. He entered the Halle Open, an event which he had won 8 times. He didn’t lose a set in his run to the semis, but was upset there in 3 sets by Zverev, marking the first time in which Federer did not make the final since 2002.
Next came Wimbledon where he was not the favorite. He looked sharp in straight set wins over Guido Pella, Marcus Willis, Brit Daniel Evan and Steve Johnson and an enthralling win over Marin Cilic, coming back from 2 sets down.
World no. 7 and up and comer Canadian Milos Raonic, ironically coached by future Federer coach Ivan Ljubicic, awaited in the semis. They split the first four sets and then at 1-2 in the deciding fifth a gasp and a hush took over Centre Court as Federer took a nasty spill while attempting to negotiate a skilled Raonic return.
He called for the trainer and then resumed play, losing meekly 6-3. It was his first loss in the Wimbledon semis, after going 10-0. Federer said after the match that he had “overachieved” in the event, a strange comment from someone who had 7 Wimbledon victories under his belt.
He was actually asked at the press conference following the loss if he would be back on Centre Court and said that “I hope to be back.” Raonic went on to lose to Andy Murray in the final and Federer announced later in the month that due to the knee injury would not compete further in 2016, missing the 2016 Olympics.
He desperately wanted to win an Olympic Gold in singles, having won a Gold in doubles with Stan Wawrinka in Beijing in 2008. No one expected Federer to be a serious contender, more less win the Australian in 2017.
Maybe no one except Federer and his team. Afterall, he was ranked no. 16 in the world by the ATP and was coming off of a potentially serious injury. He competed in the Hopman Cup and won 3 matches. But his playing did not resemble that of a Grand Slam winner. He was the no. 17 seed in Australia.
He opened up the event with a decent early draw and easy wins over Jurgen Melzer and Noah Rubin of the USA and John McEnroe Tennis Academy.
Nemesis Tomas Berdych awaited in the next round. The hard hitting Berdych owned huge wins over Federer at the US Open, Wimbledon and the Olympics. Federer won in 90 minutes by 6-2, 6-4, 6-4. Federer won 95% of his first serve points and did not face a break point or break a sweat in the match.
“Crazy how quick I got out of the blocks,” Berdych said. ”I almost want to say this was the best I saw him play.” Meanwhile, Djokovic inexplicably lost a 5-setter in the second round to Denis Istoman. Federer and Japan’s Kei Nishikori played an exciting 5-setter in the next round, with Federer winning off of a 6-3 final set.
Murray fell to Zverev’s older brother, Mischa. Federer had no trouble with Mischa in the next round, rolling him in 3 sets to advance to the semis against Wawrinka. The two played a tremendous match with both players needing medical treatments.
Federer prevailed 7-5, 6-3, 1-6, 4-6, 6-3 to become the oldest man to reach a Grand Slam final since Ken Rosewall at the 1974 US Open. “I couldn’t be happier right now”, said Federer. “I never had in my wildest dreams that I’d come this far in Australia.”
The prize for the win was a match-up with Nadal, who defeated Grigor Dimitrov, dubbed Baby Fed for his style of play. The Nadal match was played a day after the Federer win and went 5 sets and almost 5 hours, with Nadal prevailing 6-4 in the fifth.
They had not met in a Grand Slam final since the 2011 French Open. Nadal was 23-11 over Federer and 3-0 at the Australian Open, which included the agonizing 5-set 2009 loss to Nadal in the 2009 final. Federer had won the last match between the 2 at Basel, his home turf in 2015.
Nadal was favored in the 2019 match. Federer was on from the baseline early on and won the first set, 6-4. Federer broke in the pivotal 7th game and the pro-Federer crowd erupted at Rod Laver Arena. Nadal was consistently deep with his forehand in the second set and won 6-3.
Federer’s serve was lethal in the third set and he won easily at 6-1.Rafa came back with a 6-3 win to set up the pivotal 5th set, much to the delight of the sold-out crowd.
Federer took a medical timeout and was strangely criticized by Australian great Pat Cash. It didn’t seem to faze Nadal as he broke Federer in the first game and raced out to a 3-1 lead. Federer knotted it at 3-3 with some aggressive ball striking and much to the surprise of everyone, did not drop another game en route to a 6-3 win and his 18th Grand Slam crown.
Commenting on the last 3 games of the fifth set Federer said,” I just had the best 20 minutes of my life, maybe on the tennis court.” Federer considered the unlikely win one of the top 3 tourney victories over his long and storied career.
Afterall, he was 35 and coming off of a 6-month injury layoff.