If you live in the eastern portion of the United States, you had to get up at 3 a.m. in order to watch Roger Federer face Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open Final. The lost sleep was worth it to see two of the greatest tennis players of all-time throw haymakers at each other for five sets. Federer, trailing 2-1 and down a break in the fifth set, rallied to win 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3. Federer extended his record to 18 career Grand Slam singles titles, while Nadal remains tied with Pete Sampras in second place on that list with 14.
Federer and Nadal did not play perfect tennis but they played at a breathtakingly high level for sustained periods. The fifth set was captivating theater. Initially, the match looked like a rerun of most of the earlier matches in the head to head rivalry (which Nadal still leads, 23-12, including 9-3 in Grand Slams and 6-3 in Grand Slam Finals). Federer led two sets to one but Nadal stormed back to take the fourth set and after he seized an early break in the fifth set it looked like Nadal, as usual, would wear Federer down mentally and physically. Nadal is the only player who not only beats Federer but seems to break Federer down, resulting in mental mistakes and physical fatigue--but this time Federer found another gear: although Nadal may have slowed a bit down the stretch, it did not look like Nadal lost so much as Federer just beat him with splendid shotmaking.
The Federer fans--and they are legion, including many media members--will say that this victory clinched greatest player of all-time status for Federer; they have been singing that refrain for a decade and, as Federer aged, they became increasingly strident, pointing to every Federer accomplishment as proof of his greatness while saying that every Federer loss did not mean much because he was already past his prime.
The reality is that this match was marvelous to watch but it did not change much about the facts, even if some people will change their perceptions. As mentioned above, Nadal still owns a decisive lead in the head to head rivalry. Nadal beat Federer early (taking 12 of the first 18 matches that they played against each other, culminating in an epic 2008 triumph in the Wimbledon Final on what could be called Federer's "home court") and he has beaten Federer late (winning six of their nine matches since 2011).
Nadal still owns a better Grand Slam winning percentage (14/47, 29.8%; Federer's Grand Slam winning percentage is 18/69, 26.1%) and he has taken Federer's measure at Federer's best Grand Slam (Wimbledon) while Federer has not reciprocated at Roland Garros, where Nadal has won a record nine French Open titles (Federer's lone French Open win came without facing Nadal). Nadal owns the head to head advantage over Federer at the French Open (5-0) and the Australian Open (3-2), while Federer leads 2-1 at Wimbledon. They have never met at the U.S. Open. Nadal leads in ATP Masters/ATP World Tour Masters 1000 matches (12-4), best of five matches (11-4), clay court matches (13-2) and hard court matches (9-8).
Why would one match, as great as this one was, between a 35 year old Federer and a 30 year old Nadal weigh heavily enough to overcome that mountain of evidence pointing to Nadal's superiority? That just makes no sense. If anything, this match was an anomalous result between two players who are both past their primes, neither of whom had won a Grand Slam in years (2012 for Federer, 2014 for Nadal); the norm is for Nadal to beat Federer and to beat him in heartbreaking fashion by overpowering him. In the fifth set while trailing, Federer called the trainer over several times but if anything Nadal looked like the player who was a step slower than he had been earlier in the match. Federer may very well have aged better than Nadal and Nadal may not even be playing at 35, let alone winning Grand Slams--but when comparing two great players peak value matters more than durability, particularly when considering the fact that both players have had long careers by tennis standards.
Also, although Nadal's hard-charging style does not seem to be made for longevity--and he has always been less durable than Federer--who can dare say that Nadal cannot possibly win four Grand Slams in the next five years to tie Federer's record by the time that Nadal is the age that Federer is now? That seems unlikely--but no more unlikely than Federer emerging from a five year Grand Slam drought to outlast his greatest rival in five sets. Why have Federer's fans spent the past decade trying to close the greatest player of all-time discussion when Federer's greatest rival is still active? Reread that sentence carefully and the answer is not too hard to figure out.
Congratulations to Roger Federer for winning the Australian Open in dramatic fashion and kudos to both players for providing fantastic, high level tennis; hopefully, this is a rekindling of the rivalry and not the last, great spark.