— MELBOURNE, Australia - It didn’t happen but it will, eventually.
Roger Federer didn’t join Pete Sampras as the only player to ever win 14 Grand Slam championships. Rafael Nadal, the reigning No. 1, proved why he is the game’s best player, by defeating Federer 7-5, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 6-2 in a draining four hours and 23 minutes in the men's Australian Open final.
Federer will tie Sampras’ record it’s just a matter of when. The Swiss has been remarkable in that he has reached the final in 14 of the last 15 majors. The next greatest streak in the Open Era is four by Rod Laver and Andre Agassi.
Sampras has said that even though Federer won’t be winning Grand Slams like he did between 2003 and 2007, he will break the record and Nadal has echoed that. But for Federer the pursuit of the mark has been made increasingly difficult not by a decline in his play – he has a game that is essentially without a weakness and is a ferocious competitor -- but by the emergence of Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.
Never count Federer out. Last year after losing in the Australian Open semifinals (to Djokovic) and in the finals of the French Open and Wimbledon (to Nadal) he roared back to win the U.S. Open and on the way beat Djokovic and Murray.
When I first saw Federer he was not a finished product and had some work to do on his game. He became a complete player and beyond his immense talent he also has working for him his wealth of experience and the knowledge of what it takes to come through in big matches. It was pretty clear how good Federer was going to be when he defeated Pete Sampras at Wimbledon 7-6, 5-7, 6-4, 6-7, 7-5 in the round of 16 in 2001. Two years later he would win his first major, also at Wimbledon.
Everyone immediately recognized Federer’s immense talent. People were asking, “How far can he go?” He proved how far -- holding the No. 1 ranking for an incredible 237 weeks. People have no idea how difficult that was to do. They have no idea what the pressure was like. It was an amazing feat.
During the entire time as the world’s top ranked player, Federer was and still is a very unique individual. He speaks to everyone (and is fluent in four languages) and is very engaging. Just to show what kind of person he is, one need only think about the emotion he shows during the trophy presentations. He is one of a kind. A class act.
The Federer-Nadal meeting was the first time in nine years that the men’s No. 1 and No. 2 seeds met in the Australian Open final. Andre Agassi and Yevgeny Kafelnikov in 2000 were the last to do it. This was the seventh meeting between Federer and Nadal in a Grand Slam final (Nadal leads 5-2), tying the record of William Johnson and Bill Tilden. Federer and Nadal are the second pair, (Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander were the first), to meet in the final on three different Grand Slam surfaces.
Last year Nadal outlasted Federer on the lawns at Wimbledon, 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7. Many have called it the best match of all-time. The title match here was also a superb contest. Taking the trophy, Nadal became the first Spaniard to win the Australian Open championship and he must be considered a threat match Rod Laver’s calendar Grand Slam achieved in 1969.
Last year, Nadal was the game’s dominant player and based on his fantastic start to the new season, this clearly hasn’t changed. His sixth Grand Slam victory was the 19th consecutive men’s Grand Slam won by a European. The final was the first in 21 years to go five sets (Mats Wilander defeated Pat Cash 6-3, 6-7, 3-6, 6-1, 8-6 in 1988). Nadal became the 25th different Australian Open champion. The tournament is the Grand Slam with the most different men’s winners in the Open Era.
Going into the match, Federer had won three of their previous five hard court meetings, including their last encounter in 2007 at The Tennis Masters Shanghai, a 6-4, 6-1 semifinal victory. This was the first time they faced one another in a Grand Slam hard court final. Having won the Australian Open in 2007, 2006 and 2004, along with the last five U.S. Open titles, Federer was 8-0 in hard court Grand Slam finals.
Before the match, I thought Nadal might need to be more aggressive, especially if he was tired after his five hour plus semifinal against Fernando Verdasco. But if one player would have enough gas left in the tank after a marathon like that, it would be Nadal. The way he played, he was the usual running Rafa. Federer needed to come out and be more aggressive. He was but Nadal was just better.
Nadal was at a disadvantage having only one day off before the final, while Federer had two. This is not fair. I understand the importance of television and those who buy tickets but both players should compete in the semifinals on the same day and then both should have either one day or two days off before the final. At the U.S. Open and Wimbledon, the players have the same schedule. The Australian Open shouldn’t be different.
The next major is the French Open where on clay Federer will have his work cut out for him. He has played Nadal at Roland Garros the last four years (three of those in finals) and has won just three of 15 sets against the Spaniard. But Federer can be expected to show up in Paris fully prepared to make another all-out run to do in his nemesis and draw even with Sampras.