The Real Champ Called Roger


The Swiss beats Rafael Nadal to win his 18th Grand Slam title in a five-set final of comebacks…. writes Sabin Iqbal

 It was not his 18th Grand Slam title he won tonight in Rod Laver Arena that has made Roger Federer a true champion. More than those 20 aces; crisp, near-perfect, crosscourt backhands; and, oh yes, those 57 unforced errors, it was the words he spoke to Rafael Nadal, whom he had outplayed in a five-set final that make him special. “I am happy for you,” he told Nadal. “I would have been happy to lose to you. Tennis is a tough sport. There are no draws. If there were I would have been happy to accept one tonight and share it with Rafa.”


Before Federer spoke, Nadal said: “Just amazing the way that he is playing after such a long time without being on the tour. It’s very difficult to make that happen. I feel very happy for you.”

Not that the tennis 35-year-old Federer played tonight to pick up his 18th Grand Slam title, his fifth Australian Open, was of any mundane stuff, winning the match 6-4 3-6 6-1 3-6 6-3. Nadal too was coming off a five-setter semifinal, and though he did get only a day’s break to rest his 30-year-old muscles, he was in his zone, playing those scintillating trademark shots.

It says, iron sharpens iron.

Perhaps, Federer needs Nadal to dig deep to draw forth the best in him; and to knap him into a formidable weapon. As the match moved into the second and third sets, Federer unleashed those deadly crosscourt shorts with telling effect.

The 2017 Australian Open men’s single final tonight was not just about tennis of top-drawer stuff but of fantastic comeback stories of two of the game’s greats. None had given them any chance before the ball rolled this year in Melbourne. Both had been fighting injuries and long layoffs. And, in professional tennis, you don’t survive on memories.

The last time Federer won a Grand Slam was way back in 2012 when he won his seventh Wimbledon. It was his 100th match in Australian Open, and the three-and-half-long match did test his stamina as he had not played competitive tennis since last July. The Swiss player has now won three different Grand Slam more than five times—seven Wimbledon titles, five US Open and five Australian Open.

Nadal too had to battle injuries which had kept him out most of last season, and as Federer acknowledged, it was a remarkable achievement for the Spaniard’s team to get him back in shape to play back-to-back five-setters in a Grand Slam. Nadal remains tied in second with Pete Sampras on 14 Grand Slams.

You don’t get nobler adversaries in modern sports than these two. The right-handed Swiss and the left-handed Spaniard have played each other in their contrasting styles but have never lost respect for each other.

I had the opportunity to report the Dubai Open when these two played each other nearly a decade ago. Though Nadal beat Federer, he was all praise for the Swiss during the post-match press meet, saying the Swiss was a master and any day a better player than him. More than humility, it was the Mallorcan’s respect for Federer. Over the years, we have seen these two playing some scintillating tennis yet keeping their friendship and mutual respect as an example of sportsmanship.

Federer’s emotional expressions in the Rod Laver Arena tonight should have left no eye dry in the audience. His family and friends were in the player’s box for it was indeed a flashback moment for one of the game’s all-time greats.

Honestly, you don’t know if you ever see him kiss a Grand Slam again.