For a split second, it seemed like Roger Federer’s reign of dominance might end Sunday.
Up 10-9 in the third set tiebreaker and holding his second match point, he drew his foe Andy Murray into the net with a drop shot and moved over to cover the line as the quick Scot sprinted forward. His brain briefly screamed ‘hit the volley,’ but instead, he let the ball whiz past him and watched it fall in the corner. “I thought, ‘Oh no, I’m going to see myself in the fifth set and not winning the title,’ ” said Federer, who slapped himself on the forehead. “I’m thinking, ‘My God, he just grabbed the trophy out of my hands. I might end up losing this thing.’ ”
But, Federer doesn’t lose matches like that. Five points later after Murray buried a backhand into the net, Federer came away with a 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (11) victory for his fourth Australian title and his record 16th major title overall.
The longtime No. 1 continues to defy the odds, as at the age of 28 and with just about every conceivable record in his pocket, he’s stays motivated and amazingly, seems to be improving. To be able to face down a young player as smart and as talented as Murray in straight sets when it appeared as though Britain’s greatest hopeful was at the top of his game is astounding.
Murray came into the match with a 6-4 record against Federer and had scored mind-boggling knockouts of Rafael Nadal and Marin Cilic en route to the finals. He was smoking big serves, teeing off with his forehand, closing on the net and was no longer just a brilliant tactician with a hatchet of a backhand and eye-popping return of serve.
But Federer cautioned before the match that their head to head record had to be thrown out. Why? Because it was he who knew how to perform in major finals, and not Murray, who had only been there once before at the 2008 U.S. Open in a loss to Federer. That it was Murray who really needed the win to cement his status as an elite player.
Instead of bringing the up-tempo, suffocating attack that had wowed Nadal, Murray largely played a passive match, where Federer went right at him early, serving with precision and power, daring him to play into his ultra-dangerous forehand. After Federer fought off three break points in the fifth game of the match, he seized control, breaking Murray to 5-4 with two forehands down both lines. He easily held to close out the first set and then broke the Scot to go up 2-1 in the second set with a flying forehand crosscourt pass and then forced Murray into a forehand error.
“I was just floating and trying to be dangerous,” Federer said.
Unlike in previous matches when he was able to break Federer’s backhand down and make major statements on his own service games, Murray merely poked the ball around and could get no real rhythm on his serve. The second set quickly disappeared with a vintage Federer serve and forehand swing volley and Murray dragged himself around the court.
But in the third, he woke up, but not for long enough. Heartened by the fact that Federer had lost two five-set Grand Slam finals in the past 13 months — to Nadal at the Australian Open and to Juan Martin del Potro at the U.S. Open — Murray began to claw and cut loose a little more. He got off to a 5-3 lead but then began to get shaky again as Federer began to press him. He was broken back to 5-4 on a lousy forehand and he screamed at himself.
Murray kept battling and brought the set to a tiebreaker, but he simply couldn’t capitalize on five set points, three of which were lost on unforced errors and one, a backhand volley he missed at 7-6, will surely haunt him for the rest of the winter.
"I can cry like Roger, it’s just a shame I can’t play like him,” a despondent Murray said during the awards ceremony.
Now Murray’s long preparation for his next realistic chance to win a major — the pressure cooker of Wimbledon — will commence, while Federer can put up his feet and revel is his self-made glory. How about this: the Swiss has reached 18 of the last 19 Grand Slam finals, and has won 16 of the last 29 majors. Although the cliche goes that records are made to be broken, those are almost unapproachable marks. Here’s another: He’s won 16 Slams in the last six and half years. Who is going to approach that feat? “I always knew I had something special, but I didn’t know it was that crazy,” Federer said. “I definitely had to work extremely hard so I would pick the right shot at the right time. I always knew I had it in my hands. The question is do I have it in my mind and in my legs. Now I feel like obviously I’m being pushed a great deal by the new generation coming up. When I came on tour, matches were played very differently. It was more of a bluff game, guys serving well, but there was always a weakness you could go to.
"Today that doesn’t exist anymore. That’s also thanks to guys like Murray. They’ve made me a better player, because I think this has been one of my finest performances in a long time, or maybe forever.”
Outside of his main rival, Nadal, whose longevity as a standout player may be in jeopardy because of chronic tendonitis in his knees, no player has been able to consistently touch him at the majors. He’ll take an odd loss here (to Novak Djokovic at the 2008 Aussie Open) and the odd defeat there (to del Potro), but no player in history has been so consistently lethal, so clutch, so willing to stand up and deliver just when it seems like he’s about to take a step back.
“I’m flabbergasted to know what still motivates him,” former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash said. “I certainly couldn’t keep it up. There must be a real challenge there. He had great year last year, but was beaten by some young up-and-comers and for him to come out and play as well as he did here shows he still has stuff to prove to himself and to match up with the young guys. I didn’t expect him to play this well.”
Federer is confounded why he’s even asked what still drives him. He’s the father of twins now and became the first dad since Andre Agassi in 2003 to win a major. So why not just retire, take it easy, raise the kids and dreamily think back to his glory days. Maybe because there are more glory days ahead, or maybe because he was simply born to play.
“Unlike any of the other great champions who had angst or insecurities or needed something financially, this guy has a pure love of the game that we haven’t seen before” said Tennis Channel analyst Justin Gimelstob. “It’s the pure fulfillment of achievement and being the best that he can be.”