It feels good to know something. To really know. In an age of fake news and echo chambers, there is something pleasant and reassuring about being epistemologically confident. And today I knew, beyond a scintilla of doubt, that Roger Federer is the greatest male tennis player of all time. No caveat, no conditions, no qualifications and no doubt.
Before reading about why Sunday's victory at Rod Laver Arena so firmly cemented Federer's legacy, I commend some reading on Federer (in order of priority):
- David Foster Wallace's piece from 2006
- Brian Phillips' piece from 2015
- Louisa Thomas and Michael Terry's piece from 2015
- Ed Smith's piece from 2013
The Final Evidence
Roger Federer, aged 35 (+ father of four kids) and returning from a six-month absence, finally won a record-extending eighteenth Grand Slam. He is now four clear of his closest peers: Nadal and Sampras. But even saying that does not capture the entirety of the feat. So I offer just some information:
- Federer had not defeated Nadal in a Grand Slam since Wimbledon 2007
- Federer had never defeated Nadal at the Australian Open (3-0)
- Federer had to win three 5-set matches in a row (again 35 and a half years old)
- Federer now holds at least 5 trophies from 3 of the 4 Grandslams
- Federer is the oldest champion in 45 years (since Ken Rosewall)
- En route to victory, Federer defeated four top-10 seeds
But all this doesn't really compare to the utter bravery of the tennis:
a break down
in the fifth set
in the most historically significant match ever
against his greatest (and H2H dominating) rival
and he played
It is hard to convey the belief, confidence, skill and willingness it took Federer to play the type of tennis he did in the fifth set. He went toe-to-toe on the baseline against Nadal. This has historically resulted in pretty severe loss. And not only did he go toe-to-toe, Federer won those rallies, see: this 26 point rally. Just watch it a few times.
Brave and unburdened
After the match, Federer was asked about his game plan and he said "...the brave will be rewarded". Sounding more like Hemingway than a professional tennis athlete, Federer also clearly articulated his strategy going into and during the match:
“I told myself to play free,” he said. “You play the ball, you don’t play the opponent. Be free in your head, be free in your shots, go for it.”
Did removing the burden of expectations allow Federer to win? I'm not so sure it is just as simple as that. There are a number of contributing factors: the faster courts, Nadal's (non-obvious) fatigue and Federer's freakish genius (obviously) all combine into the tapestry of this victory. But I do think, and Mr Federer thinks, that the mental freedom to play his tennis was likely the most decisive factor. A few days ago Federer intimated that the heavy losses to Nadal on clay early on in their rivalry had affected him and the manner he played Nadal on other surfaces. He went so far as to say that it directly affected how he played the first two sets of his famous 2008 defeat to Nadal at the All England Club.
I've always felt that Federer is like glass. Flawless but breakable. And the man who usually broke him (pun intended) was Nadal. But this time Federer was committed to his tennis. More than any other player on the men's side, victory is off his racquet. He plays well, he wins. It's a simple equation. Nadal always caused him to miss, to doubt, to question. Not today. Today, Federer was the braver player and it paid off.
Where to now?
It seems safe to say Federer won't be meeting Nadal in the final of the Australia Open again...but even that causes me to pause. This whole thing should've been impossible but it happened. I still can't really believe it happened.
We all doubted and Federer showed the world that anything is possible (if you're Roger Federer).