Nadal resurgence is most remarkable aspect of Australian Open final

28 January 2017 08:54

When Rafael Nadal was sobbing in the back of the car, a ninth grand slam final with Roger Federer seemed a long way away.

He had just pulled out of last year's French Open, continuing a miserable season that began with a first round defeat at the Australian Open, worsened with his withdrawal from Wimbledon and culminated with a fourth round defeat at the US Open to Lucas Pouille.

An Olympic doubles gold medal offered a rare moment of comfort but by October, Nadal had called the year off, opting instead to focus on overcoming the niggling pain in his left wrist.

He had not won fewer matches in a calendar year since emerging as a long-haired 17-year-old in 2004.

Nadal's resurgence is therefore the most remarkable aspect of Sunday's throwback Australian Open final, even given Federer's defiance of all expectations, including his own, having just returned from a six-month sabbatical due to a knee injury.

"I didn't think about being where I am today," Nadal said.

"When you feel that you are playing very well and you have to go from Roland Garros without going on court, I remember myself crying in the car coming back to the hotel. That was a tough moment."

When Federer travelled out to Mallorca in October to put his name to Nadal's new tennis academy, the pair laughed at how their creaking bodies would allow them only to play mini-tennis with the kids.

They discussed the idea of organising a charity match, the assumption, presumably, that a 35th career-meeting might never materialise.

"In that moment, for sure we never thought that we had the chance to be again in a final and especially in the first of the year," Nadal said.

"It happened. Both of us I think worked very hard to be where we are. It's great that, again, we are in a moment like this."

For all the sentiment, however, the stakes are high.

Nadal is chasing a second Australian Open title, which would see him become the first man in the Open era to win every major twice. It is one of the few achievements Federer does not boast.

The 30-year-old can also register his 15th grand slam success, putting him second in the all-time list, above Pete Sampras, and within sight of Federer's 17.

If Federer were to win his 18th, the gap of four would surely be too wide to close.

"I'll leave all the energy here in Australia, and then I can relax after here. It's gone much better than I thought it would," Federer said.

"Let it fly off your racket and just see what happens. I think that's the mindset I've got to have in the final as well. A sort of a nothing-to-lose mentality."

In Federer's corner are the speed of the courts in Melbourne, which by common consensus are faster than ever before, and his extra time to recuperate. Playing his semi-final a day earlier means the 35-year-old has 26 hours longer to rest his legs.

For Nadal, there is his scintillating semi-final win over Grigor Dimitrov, an opponent very similar in style to Federer, and most obviously, his dominance over this match-up in the past.

The Spaniard holds a 23-11 advantage overall, 6-2 in major finals, and has won six out of their last seven meetings.

Federer might justifiably point out that almost half of their duels have come on clay, where Nadal is imperious, and only three on his own favourite surface, grass.

"Maybe I lost the Wimbledon final in 2008 because of too many clay court matches," Federer said.

"It was more mentally something at some moments. Now it's a different time. A lot of time has gone by.

"I know this court allows me to play a certain game against Rafa that I cannot do on centre court at the French Open."

The 2008 Wimbledon final, which Nadal won 9-7 in the fifth, is widely considered to be the greatest tennis match of all time, but f ew sitting on Centre Court that day would have predicted a reunion nine years and 34 major tournaments later.

Nadal and Federer both recognise the significance.

"He's an incredible tennis player. He's got shots that no other one has," Federer said. "When you have that, you are unique and special."

Nadal added: "The rivalry was amazing, for me and I think for tennis too.

"It is the combination of two different styles that makes the matches really special. It is a different way to play tennis.

"I feel that this rivalry goes not only in the tennis world, people from outside of our world talk about this, and that's good for our sport. It's good to be back."

Source: PA