“I’m a different player due to Rafa’s presence,” Roger Federer said in a 2015 press conference, and if you needed it, yesterday’s 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 Australian Open win offered the clearest possible evidence. When your defensive-genius nemesis applies crushing pressure on you for more than a decade, you might end up crying, yes, but you also might end up with a diamond like this: flinty, precise aggression for the better part of five sets.
By now Federer knows how fine the margins are and how high a risk he must take on every shot against Nadal, who makes you beat him three or four times over the course of single point and can punish you with the best passing shot ever if you step to him. Federer came into this match with 11-23 record of failure, but even this late in his career found a fresh way to win over his rival.
“I told myself to play free,” Federer said after the match. “Be free in your head, be free in your shots, go for it. The brave will be rewarded here.”
The usual tactical storyline of this matchup holds that Federer’s one-handed backhand can’t cope with the heavy topspin Nadal feeds it, but that stroke never looked better than it did last night, lethal and even less error-prone than his forehand. Previously Federer would rely on a safe backhand slice to reset a point turned sour, but you could count on fingers and toes the number of slices he took in this match, most of which were hit out of lunging necessity rather than tactical choice. Nor did Federer, who has a much greater appetite for the net now than he did at the outset of this rivalry, creep up to the net with much regularity. Instead this was a title won with bold work on the baseline. Federer didn’t shy away from the high ball to his backhand, but instead lined it up, struck the shot absurdly early, and painted the corners, robbing Nadal—the man who always seems to have enough time—of every possible millisecond. Here’s an instance where Federer, unfazed by the spin on Rafa’s forehand, places a backhand deep enough in the ad corner to earn an easy putaway:
In the first point shown here, despite a huge, heavy high forehand from Nadal, Federer steps up and produces an unreturnable angle:
Also eye-catching? How Federer returned serve on that same wing. Whenever he found breaks of serve—especially that 6-1 third set—he always had his backhand returns to thank. Nadal often opts for a very spinny kick serve to harangue Federer’s backhand, but he often beautifully timed those high balls to send Nadal scrambling onto his back foot. (This was a tactic that Federer clone Grigor Dimitrov used very wisely in his own five-setter against Nadal in the semifinal, which makes you wonder if Roger stayed up late the night before to scout out his foe.)
Here’s one early on in the match where Federer bullies Nadal’s second serve to set up a winner:
And here’s one where he gambles on a big crack at a first serve out wide:
Most mindboggling, though, were those instances down the stretch where he survived the long, brutal exchange. Here’s a little point—the best of the tournament—that Federer would lose 99 times out of 100. If he hasn’t found a way to apply pressure early on, he generally will not somehow find it over time, as his legs begin to ache while Nadal’s remains as fresh as ever, his spin refusing to relent. But here is Federer, somehow finding the sweet opportunity on stroke number 26, and on the run no less:
After the first two games of this deciding set, he was down a break and seemingly fated for another runner-up trophy and more waterworks. But then there he was, breaking back for the second time straight, somehow beating Nadal at his own grueling game and betraying no weakness in the areas where the Spaniard had historically punished him. Federer couldn’t have scripted a sweeter way to snag major number 18 and lengthen even further the shadow he casts on the sport.