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Worth The Wait: Federer Cements Legacy With 18th Grand Slam

Posted: 3:14 PM, Jan 29, 2017
Updated: 2017-01-29 16:18:02-05

Roger Federer toes the baseline with the Australian Open title on his racquet. Three hours and 36 minutes into another fantastic men's Grand Slam final, it's championship point.

Federer hits the serve down the middle, then runs around a return that landed well inside the baseline, but hardly in an offensive position. With the finish line of another grueling five-set match in sight, he cracks an inside-out forehand that sails just long.

Deuce.

Grand Slam title no. 18 will have to wait just a little bit longer.

THE LONG WAIT

In truth, Federer had been waiting for this moment since 2012 Wimbledon, when he defeated Andy Murray in four sets for his 17th slam title. Since then, the joy of the Swiss' sensation's tennis has been largely interrupted by pain, both physical and emotional.

There was the loss in the 2012 Olympic final to Murray just weeks later, denying him a gold medal on his favored Centre Court at the All-England Club.

There was the nagging back injury in 2013 and the way too late equipment change to a more up to date racquet that led to him dropping out of the top four in the ATP rankings for the first time since he had risen to the top in 2003.

Federer reclaimed his elite form in 2014, reaching the Wimbledon final for a ninth time. But his run at a record eighth title on the grass was denied in a heartbreaking five set defeat against Novak Djokovic. Two more finals losses to Djokovic followed in 2015 at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

Then came 2016 and the first surgery of his long and storied career to repair a torn meniscus he revealed he suffered the day after the Australian Open. After missing the French Open (the first time he missed a Grand Slam since 1999), Federer returned for Wimbledon and reached the semifinals, but felt his surgically repaired knee still wasn't right.

Doctors told him he needed to take a couple months away from the game to heal. Instead of pushing himself to the limit to return just in time for a run in Flushing Meadows, the then 34 year old Federer took the long view, electing to take six months of rest and rehab in the hopes of prolonging his career.

No one expected this level of tennis, at least this soon. Federer arrived in Melbourne a fortnight ago as the 17-seed, having played only an exhibition tournament since his last meaningful matches at Wimbledon last July.

The draw, he joked, was nice, "because I'm in it" after missing so much time away. In reality, it was anything but. With a potential of five top 10 players littering his path a deep push seemed unlikely and a title seemed all but impossible.

After struggling to find his form through two rounds, Federer provided hope with a vintage performance, sweeping 10-seed Tomas Berdych in straight sets. He followed that with an equally brilliant five-set victory over five-seed Kei Nishikori in the round of 16, and that's when even Federer started to believe.

He was provided a gift when the top-seeded Murray was upset and he cruised past journeyman Mischa Zverev into the semifinals, where he continued his mastery of three-seed and Swiss countryman Stan Wawrinka, grinding out a five-set win to reach his 28th Grand Slam final.

**********

Federer fires an ace. Deep into the ninth game of a third five-set match in eight days, the 35 year old Federer has his second championship point.

The Rolex clock over his right shoulder now displays the time on court as 3:37. Federer hits his serve down the middle again, but this time the return comes back much shorter.

From the middle of the court, just beyond the service line, he rips one last forehand. The Rod Laver Arena crowd erupts, but only for a moment.

On the other side of the net is Rafael Nadal, and the man that has stood in Federer's way for the better part of the last 13 years, provides one last moment of resistance.

A challenge.

Federer's 18th Grand Slam title will be decided by replay, a system he initially detested, but has used favorably later in his career.

The celebration will have to wait just a little bit longer.

IMPOSSIBLE DREAM FINAL

It was an overcast October day for the opening of the Rafa Nadal Academy, the tennis school Nadal founded on his home island of Mallorca.

The special guest that day was Roger Federer, the man Nadal had faced 34 times on tennis courts around the globe, winning 23 of them including six of eight meetings in major finals.

Remarkably, despite their fierce rivalry the two remain close friends as evidenced by Federer's appearance in Manacor that day. Instead of trading forehands, the two best players in tennis history lobbed jokes at one another.

Federer's knee and a wrist injury to Nadal prevented either from competing for most of the second half of the 2016 season and forced them to cancel the exhibition they had planned for that day. The two managed to get on a court only briefly for a game of mini-tennis with the academy's youngsters.

No one that day, not even Roger or Rafa, could've imagined when their next meeting would come. Perhaps with a little hopeful enthusiasm, Nadal presented Federer with a poster commemorating some of the great matches of their past and the following note:

Dear Roger, thank you very much for your support at the official opening of my academy. Today is an unforgettable day for me, my family and my team. You cannot imagine how special it is to have you here with us. Roger, this reflects all the moments we had on the court. Looking back at them I see all the great memories we shared in our careers… To be continued…

To be continued, indeed.

With Murray and Djokovic already out, people began to talk about the possibility of Federer/Nadal final the moment they reached the second week of the tournament. The whispers crescendoed to a roar by the time Federer beat Wawrinka, and when Nadal outlasted rising star Grigor Dimitrov in a five-set semifinal of his own, the impossible dream final was complete.

LEGACY MATCH

The argument will go on and on about which one of these legends is the "greatest of all-time". Federer topped the record books with 88 titles, including 17 Grand Slams, and has spent a whopping 302 weeks ranked no. 1. But Nadal owns the sizable head-to-head advantage, has won more Masters series events and has 14 Grand Slam titles himself, tied with Pete Sampras for second most all-time.

This was matching the two best players in tennis history for the first time in almost two years, and the first time in a slam final since the 2011 French Open. It was a reason to celebrate.

And for the better part of four hours the sports world did. This was not the highest level of brilliance they've ever exchanged. The 2008 twilight Wimbledon final is probably the greatest match ever played, although Federer believes the 2009 Australian Open final was an even higher level of tennis.

Ironically, it was Nadal that won both of those epic matches, further enforcing the belief that his defensive, heavy top spin game was kryptonite to the Swiss Maestro.

That's why this match was even more important for Federer. After all he had been through, a finals loss to anyone else after his run down under would've been a major accomplishment and an enormous confidence boost for the rest of the year. But there's no such thing as a moral victory in this rivalry. Another loss to Nadal would've further widened the gap in their head-to-head series and closed Federer's Grand Slam title margin to two.

Conversely, a victory would make Federer a Grand Slam champion 13 years after his first and extend his overall titles lead.

This was about legacy, and as far as that goes, this may have been the most important tennis match ever played.

**********

The pro-Federer Australian crowd begins to buzz, Federer stands motionless at the service line while Nadal hovers over the sideline in which he wishfully challenged what was ruled a winner by the line judge.

Both men had their moments in this match like they have throughout the rivalry. Federer striking first with a break to take the opening set. Nadal punching back tactically in set two by moving back several feet to return serve, giving himself that extra split second to finally time his returns and even the match at a set a piece.

But in this moment, it was likely the points that got away that flashed before each competitor's eyes. For Federer, it was a sloppy game early in the fourth set that forced his aging body (that would need a medical timeout for a leg injury) into a decisive fifth set. For Nadal, it was his inability to hold serve after getting an early break in the fifth, dropping a pair of games to give Federer the lead and the chance to close the match out on his lethal serve.

The wait for the shot spot review seemed like an eternity. In actuality, it took 18 anxious seconds. Fitting, perhaps, that he had to wait.

The ball was in. Federer is a champion again.

But as familiar as the winner's circle is to him, no victory has ever meant this much.

This was no. 18 in an epic Australian Open final that reminded us of Federer in his prime. And most importantly, when it mattered the most, he out-gutted his arch-rival, digging deep to beat the game's most intense competitor from down a break in the fifth set.

This was Federer, coming off knee surgery and six months removed from his last competitive tennis tournament, cementing his place as the greatest tennis player of all-time.

He will turn 36 later this year, and the one opponent that remains undefeated is Father Time. But, at least for one more night, the GOAT turned back the clock and wowed us with his brilliance one more time.

Roger Federer's 18th Grand Slam title was well worth the wait.