For five years, Roger Federer lost. After winning a major in nine of 10 years, he lost at 15 slams in a row. He lost in heartbreaking finals. He lost in first weeks. And last year, at the French and U.S. Opens, he wasn’t even healthy enough to show up and lose.
Despite holding nearly every record in the book, Federer spent half a decade fighting his aging chassis just to be “good,” not great. Sunday, all those years of chugging along in a reduced form finally led to another Grand Slam, as the 35-year-old beat Rafael Nadal in a five-set thriller at the Australian Open (6–4, 3–6, 6–1, 3–6, 6–3).
It’s no. 18 for Federer, but both before the tournament and during the match, it looked like a 16th straight loss was the number closer to his grasp.
Before the fifth set of the match with Nadal began, Federer left the court. He’d done the same thing before the fifth set of his semifinal with Stan Wawrinka three days earlier, to seek treatment for a groin injury. We still don’t know why he left during the final: Maybe it was for the same injury, or maybe it was just to give Nadal extra time to think about the trophy sitting at the edge of the court. Either way, when Federer returned, he looked like he was done.
The part of the body most critical to an effective serve is the legs; the bending of the knees and proper elevation do more to create a potent delivery than a strong arm or an elastic shoulder. Unfortunately, after returning from the locker room, it looked like Federer’s legs had left him.
Federer’s serve is often overlooked. It isn’t the tour’s fastest and it’s not the only weapon in his game. But it’s a difficult shot to anticipate and its placement is point perfect. That leads to a lot of quick points. Aces and winners off of floated returns are the centerpieces of Federer’s game against his rivals, players who can go hours without making errors. When those free points stop coming, it’s usually not long before Federer is posing for a photo op with a plate in his hands.
All night, Nadal had been lining up yards behind the baseline when returning Federer’s serves — so far back that it sometimes looked as if he would bump into a line judge. When Federer’s serve was firing, the reserved positioning gave Nadal more time and occasional opportunities to hit beefy returns. But to open the final set, the Swiss’s service game was cluttered with fatigued second serves. Nadal’s positioning allowed him to whip forehands that would negate his opponent’s service advantage and create neutral rallies. In a matchup between Federer and Nadal, the longer a neutral rally lasts, the more likely it is that the Spaniard will draw an error. (There’s only one human alive that can grind a healthy Nadal off the court, and that human is Novak Djokovic.) During that first game, Nadal prompted two errors en route to a commanding break.
Up to that point, neither player had carried momentum across sets. Federer had taken the opener, breaking early and racing to the finish behind his serves and piercing half volleys. In the second set, Nadal dug in, forcing Federer to hit extra balls and try for uncomfortable winners.
Federer won the third set behind the shot that has traditionally been his weakest: his backhand. Nadal’s forehand is a weapon built to frustrate. A number of factors — his extreme grip, the motion that finishes behind his head, Babolat’s uncomfortably spin-friendly poly strings — create a shot that seems to halt and move vertically when it looks to be heading out of the court. That same shot can jump to a contact point almost 5 feet off the ground, which is a nightmare for players with one-handed backhands, like Federer, who prefer to return shots around or below the waist. Going high to Federer’s backhand has long been Nadal’s most common and successful play, but Grigor Dimitrov, Nadal’s semifinal opponent, found success hitting his one-hander downhill. It seemed like Federer took note. He was undaunted as he repeatedly threw backhand haymakers to break Nadal twice and get within one set of the championship.
But in the fourth, Nadal was again in control. Federer botched a forehand on a floating ball early in the set before being broken in his second service game. In the next game, at the end of a winding point, Federer found an improbable backhand angle, only to see Nadal hit an impossible squash shot winner. The set may as well have ended there.
Nadal’s break to open the fifth was the first time things looked familiar. We’d seen this match before. That impossible shot from the fourth set is the crux of Nadal’s game. Over the course of a match, he runs around and retrieves and baits his opponent to take more risks. Then, when the opponent has minimized his margin for error and still hits his spot, Nadal hits one more shot back. He wins the point, but more importantly, he breaks his opponent. If he can return that shot, then I’m out of luck. We’ve seen this happen to Federer plenty of times; the last time he reversed momentum in a fifth set against Nadal was at Wimbledon a decade ago, when Federer was 10 years younger and had a serve that wasn’t failing him.
When Federer failed to convert on three break points in Nadal’s next service game, it seemed that he was crawling toward another tear-filled second-place finish. But, somehow, Nadal’s edge disappeared. Federer found his legs. He held at love. Then, at 2–3, the Spaniard turned an inside-out forehand wide and Federer got his break. He held at love again. In Nadal’s next service game, Federer was unafraid to step in and trade blows. At deuce, at the end of a 26-shot rally, Nadal smacked a cross-court backhand. Federer, a step too far from the ball, stretched his right foot outward, shortened his backswing, and hit a pealing winner down the line. He would get his go-ahead break and then serve for the match.
In road cycling, the competitors are said to have “cracked” their opponents when they ride at such a pace that their opponents simply cannot keep up. Physically and mentally defeated, the loser trudges along as the winner speeds away up the side of the mountain. For an entire decade, Federer’s best efforts couldn’t crack Nadal in a best-of-five-sets matchup, and he even admitted that the losses took a mental toll. But this time was different. On his second championship point, Federer hit his most timeless shot, the short forehand winner. Nadal challenged, but the replay showed that the ball caught a robust portion of the sideline. At once, Federer would triumph over his two greatest rivals: Nadal and Hawk-Eye. This was the best way not to lose.
With no. 18, Federer extends his all-time Grand Slam lead on Nadal and Pete Sampras to four, and any story about Sunday’s match will mention the impact another title has on his legacy. But in celebrating the number of wins, we lose sight of the most confounding part of Federer’s career: the time when he didn’t win any majors at all.
The arcs for great athletes generally follow the same patterns: They’re at their best for a significant period of time, they begin to decline, then they either enter mediocrity or retire first. It’s unusual for the second phase — between the start of the decline and an arrival at a performance level no better than average — to last for a significant period of time. For whatever reason — the compounding effects of the aging body, the mental fatigue from realizing you can no longer do what you once could — the decline begins and then hits swiftly.
“The saddest moment in the career of a great athlete is the one when he’s tagged with the word ‘still.’ One day you’re fast. One day you’re slow,” Brian Phillips wrote of Federer for Grantland in 2011. “There’s an in-between day when you’re ‘still fast,’ and that’s the day when everything hollows out.”
At one point or another, we all picked that day for Federer — and then we thought that the “still” was gone, too. For many, that was during the 2013 season, when he was ousted from his kingdom at Wimbledon in the second round by a player ranked outside of the top 100. Sampras’s last Wimbledon ended with a second-round loss to a qualifier. The symmetry was too perfect. Later that year, Federer, seeded a lowly seventh, would lose in the fourth round of the U.S. Open to Tommy Robredo, a player against whom he had owned a lifetime record of 10–0. Of course, that diagnosis was quickly proved incorrect when he made two major semifinals and the final at Wimbledon the very next year.
For me, though, the still phase ended when I heard Federer was taking six months off from the tour following last year’s Wimbledon. Even if he decided it was worth coming back from the first serious injury of his career at age 35, he obviously wouldn’t be able to win a major tournament after repeatedly failing — while healthy — in his early 30s.
But that was never the point. Over the course of the tournament, Federer expressed surprise with his own performance. “Feeling as good as I am, playing as good as I am, that’s a huge surprise to me,” he said after his quarterfinal match. He’d said repeatedly that before the tournament, he’d expected to only reach the quarters … if he was lucky. After the final, he said, almost earnestly, that he would have been fine with losing. Federer wasn’t in Melbourne because he needed another title. He was there because it gave him joy to exist on a tennis court.
What Federer accomplished at this Australian Open was possible only because he persisted as a diminished version of himself for years. In the end, our construction of Federer’s legacy will be hugely bolstered by this tournament. We’ll remember it as a cap to all the years he spent controlling the universe in his 20s. But all of this — the Kei Nishikori and Wawrinka five-setters, the idea of the Dream Final, the Dream Final itself — was possible only because everybody cared about Roger Federer’s legacy, except for Federer himself.