One of the greatest rivalries in tennis history received another chapter Sunday night in Melbourne, Australia, as Roger Federer outlasted Rafael Nadal to win the Australian Open title, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3.
The win gives Federer his 18th Grand Slam title, the most by a man in the Open era. He had just returned from a six-month break due to a series of injuries. The title is Federer’s first since 2012.
Though Federer and Nadal have undoubtedly aged since their earlier matchups (Nadal’s trademarked long locks are now chopped and thinning), and entered the tournament seeded 17th and ninth, Sunday’s match featured the spectacular tennis that has come to define their rivalry.
Featuring spectacular twists and turns, Federer and Nadal each competed for their respective legacies. Federer drew first blood, breaking early in the opening set and dropping just four points on serve to take an early lead.
But, just as it appeared that Nadal, 30, may have been drained from a marathon five-set semifinal win over Grigor Dimitrov, the Spaniard struck back with a renewed fire. Nadal went straight for Federer’s backhand, resulting in 15 unforced errors and allowing Nadal to quickly jump ahead and close out the second set.
Then it was up to Federer to respond to the challenge. The 35-year-old, competing for his 18th Grand Slam title, wasted no time, firing off winner after winner and racing to a rare 6-1 set victory.
Nadal fought right back with an efficient set of his own, denying Federer a chance to go home with the trophy early and capturing the momentum headed into the fifth.
In the decider, Nadal broke Federer early and all signs pointed to his 15th Grand Slam title. But, somehow, someway, Federer found his way back from the brink, breaking back down 2-3 in the fifth with a spectacular backhand winner followed by an errant forehand from Nadal. Seizing the moment, Federer quickly held at love and dug deep to break Nadal and serve for the match.
In what would be his final service game, Federer staved off two break points and won courtesy of a controversial forehand winner that was challenged by Nadal, but was ultimately called in.
The win was Federer’s first over Nadal in a Grand Slam since the 2007 Wimbledon Final. Nadal came into the match with a 9-3 head-to-head edge in Grand Slams.