Finally! Roger Federer’s long-awaited 18th Grand Slam clinches status as greatest ever

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He did it.

Roger Federer finally won that elusive 18th major on Sunday night at the Australian Open, ending years of speculation and finally answering the “will he or won’t he” debate with a thunderous affirmative, defeating Rafael Nadal in a five-set classic 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 to win his first major in nearly five years, his first in Melbourne in seven years (a record gap between titles) and perhaps send the final salvo in the three-man race to become known as the greatest tennis player who ever lived.

For a 35-year-old (Federer is the oldest Slam winner since 1972), it’s an amazing achievement. For a 35-year-old coming off a six-month injury layoff, it’s remarkable. For a 35-year-old coming off a six-month injury layoff who had to play three five-set matches in the last week, all against top players in the world (Nishikori, Wawrinka and Nadal), it’s nothing short of remarkable. And then throw in the fact that Nadal has owned Federer for the better part of a decade and it becomes even more amazing. We got a treat on Sunday morning in America between Federer and Nadal, two of the best to ever play the game.

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Theirs was a battle that was as much mental as physical. Federer neutralized the advantages Nadal has used to take a 23-11 lifetime lead on the Swiss by playing up in the court and taking the ball quickly. But more important than anything is that he looked like he had the self-belief to beat Nadal, something he hasn’t always had.

Maybe it was his freshness after coming back from the injury break or maybe it was the fact that he hadn’t played Nadal in a big, hardcourt match in five years and all the self-doubt went away. While there were cracks in play (Federer and Nadal each missed easy forehands in the fourth and fifth sets, respectively, that sent each temporarily reeling), they were mentally tough. Nadal didn’t get down on himself or go through a lull, as he can for stretches, and Federer never looked panicked, even going down that break in the fifth.

After a back-and-forth first four sets, with the player gaining an early break going on to win that set each time, Nadal got the first break in the fifth and figured to continue the trend, sending Federer to another heartbreaking defeat. Recently, Federer has had them in Grand Slam finals (he had Novak Djokovic on the ropes at Wimbledon a few years ago) and Grand Slam semifinals (he blew a major lead to Milos Raonic), losses that felt like knockout punches that would keep him from ever winning No. 18. aAnd this one comes against Nadal, of all people. Nadal is his friendly rival, but also the one player on the planet who’s had his number during his career, leading 23-11 in their head-to-head series and winning six of eight meetings in major finals. A win would have given Nadal his 15th Grand Slam, breaking a tie with Pete Sampras for No. 2 all time and putting him within striking distance of Federer’s 17. The hyperbole about this being a match that might decide the G.O.A.T. wasn’t hyperbole. (At least not complete hyperbole.) And even if Nadal did win but never caught Federer, his 7-2 lead in Grand Slam finals would be a major asterisk in the debate.

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But Federer had a comeback. He had three break chances earlier in the set, earned two more and scored the break when Nadal hit an uncharacteristic error on the second. In Nadal’s next service game, he saved four break points and, like the earlier saves in the set, did it almost exclusively by hitting winners. The tennis was gorgeous. But then on the fifth break point of the game, Federer ran around a forehand to set up a backhand winner that gave him the break.

With the chance to serve it out, Nadal got out to an early lead and Federer had to save two break points. Then on his first match point, Federer double-faulted and you could practically see his tennis epitaph being carved into his sporting tombstone. “Here lies Roger Federer’s career. After years of being so clutch, he choked in his big moment on his biggest late-career stage.” But before you could even ponder how this double fault could affect the trajectory of modern tennis, Federer hit a forehand winner and won the 2017 Australian Open (but not after some awkwardness with the Hawkeye.)

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Nadal was classy in defeat (he’s classy in victory too) but, oh boy, what do you think’ll be going through his head as he tries to sleep tonight? All the injuries aside, the 30-year-old had a fifth-set break on a guy fives years older, one he’s owned throughout their careers. The moral victory thing is great (Nadal showing the ability to get back to a final is a great launching pad to better things in 2017) but the same way Federer wouldn’t have found a silver lining in defeat, neither will Rafa. How Nadal will perform the rest of the season, and whether he can regain his clay-court prowess, will be one of the many fascinating wrinkles in what’s setting up to be a tremendous men’s season.

When you have 18 Grand Slams (the same total Jack Nicklaus has in golf, by the way), you could point to most of them and say it was the biggest. The first gets you going. The second means the first wasn’t a fluke. The ninth and 12th capped three-Slam seasons. The 14th earned him the career Slam. The 15th and 16th avenged finals loss to Nadal (even if Andy Roddick and Andy Murray were the one he avenged it against, respectively). The 17th answered the question, “can he win another?” But this the one – the 18th – is different. In the twilight of his career facing his greatest foe on the biggest stage with so many disappointments and near-misses creating self-doubt in the head of a man who’s not prone to such self-skepticism, Roger Federer went down a break early in the fifth set, earned it back four games later, immediately broke again and then served out the 2017 Australian Open to hoist the trophy that’s eluded him for so long.

“This one stands alone,” said Federer.

It does.

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