Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were expected to serve up a Grand Slam final classic and the two greats of the game obliged, giving the fans an up and down, ridiculous-shot-filled Australian Open final to remember. At the end of it all, Federer, at 35 years young, stood tallest, coming back from the brink to clinch his 18th Grand Slam title in front of his adoring fans at Melbourne Park.
In a match that swung one way and then the other, Federer took the first set, before Nadal came roaring back, only for the Swiss to go up in the match again with victory in the third. Nadal refused to go away and took the fourth, before jumping to a 3-1 lead in the decider.
Then came the let's-just-go-for-it Federer, with the Swiss maestro producing tennis of the highest order to win five games in a row to seal a victory that will stay in the mind for a long, long time. After three hours and 37 minutes of amazing tennis at the Rod Laver Arena, Federer topped Nadal 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3.
"Tennis is a sport, unfortunately, with no draws, but if a draw was possible, I would have been happy to take a draw tonight with Rafa," said Federer, summing up this ridiculous match and rivalry of two of the absolute greatest.
After three comfortable holds each from the two players to start the match, Federer cranked it up a level – he was aggressive, his backhands and forehands found its range and Nadal had no answer. The Swiss quickly got a couple of break points and he only needed one as Nadal fired a backhand wide.
He consolidated the break with ease, and while Nadal forced his opponent to serve for the first set, there was never any doubt Federer would manage it – that controlled aggression coming to the fore, with an ace sealing a 6-4 score.
Nadal needed to come out firing in the second set, and he got an opening in the second game, with a gorgeous pass, but Federer was up to the task of saving the break point. Federer would be unable to save a second one soon after, though, hitting a slice backhand into the net to give Nadal a 2-0 lead.
The game to consolidate the break was a long one, with Federer getting a couple of break points, both of which were saved by Nadal with some clutch tennis, and having seen off those threats, a couple of solid serves got him the hold he needed.
With that done, Nadal kept the pressure up and with a few unforced errors coming off Federer's racquet, the Spaniard went up 0-40, before taking the third of those break points as the Swiss fired a forehand wide.
Federer wasn't just going to lie down and play dead in the second set, as Nadal was broken back to pick up his first game in the set.
It only delayed the inevitable, though, with Nadal holding his serve quite easily a couple of times to wrap up the set and level the match up at a set apiece.
Federer needed a strong start to get momentum swinging back his way and at 40-0 in the opening game of set three, that looked likely. However, Nadal pulled four points in a row to get a break point, and while that was saved by an ace, and another one after that with a second ace, Nadal kept pushing, forcing unforced errors off Federer's racquet. The Swiss had to save three break points in all in that opening game, which lasted nearly seven minutes, before finally doing enough to go 1-0 up.
That hold turned out to be a turning point in the third set, as soon it was Nadal's turn to face pressure on his serve, with Federer bringing up break point with a plain ridiculous forehand winner down the line, taken off his toes. And he would get the break too to take a 2-0 lead. A hold to love would extend the lead in the third set, with that momentum figure firmly now sat in Federer's camp.
With some typically Federer tennis, he kept punishing the Nadal serve and had the third set in the locker quite quickly.
At this point, there only looked like being one winner, with that five-hour slog against Grigor Dimitrov looking like catching up with Nadal. Federer is not one to sit back and let an advantage slip away, but Nadal is not your normal tennis player.
The Spaniard hung in there and when he got an opportunity on Federer's serve, he pounced. From there he played some sublime tennis, before serving out to push this final into a decider.
Federer, needing to arrest the momentum, took a medical timeout before the start of the fifth set, going off court for a bit of treatment. Nadal, though, was the one quicker off the blocks, with a couple of strong forehands giving him a couple of break points, the second of which he converted.
This was a match of answer backs and Federer did that in the next game, earning himself three break points, all of which were saved by Nadal, with a perfect forehand winner down the line giving him the game point he craved. A long forehand from Federer gave Nadal the consolidation of the break he required, leaving Federer to find those powers of bouncebackability.
He showed he was going nowhere yet with a hold to love as the clock ticked over towards the fourth hour of the match. Another pressure came game under Nadal's serve, with the left-hander having to stave off one more break point, to go 3-1 ahead.
Not wanting that 18th Grand Slam to slip away, Federer fought back in style, running up three games in a row to go 4-3 up in the final set, with all the pressure firmly back on Nadal.
Now it was Federer is unplayable time. Shots came from everywhere and nowhere and after an insane forehand, he got himself a break point to go 5-3 up in the set. Nadal came up with a big serve, but the force now was with Federer, with an inside-out forehand giving him another chance to serve for the championship. A Nadal forehand that caught the net gave him that chance and from there, there was only ever going to be one winner.
Federer did have to save a couple of break points while serving for the title, but after doing that brilliantly, he would not be denied, with a forehand handing the great man a historic title.
Key stats from the final:
Unforced errors: 57.
Break points won: 6/20.
First serve percentage: 85/138 (62%).
Unforced errors: 28.
Break points won: 4/17.
First serve percentage: 110/151 (73%).