| By Brian Coleman
Photo credit: Tennis Australia

The 2017 Australian Open was one for the ages in a number of ways, and turned back the clock to a decade prior with four 30-plus year-olds competing for the men’s and women’s singles titles.

No Melbourne storyline was bigger than the men’s singles final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, two long-time rivals whose Grand Slam titles, many believed, were in the rearview mirror.

Federer defeated Nadal 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 in a three-and-a-half-hour epic battle that intrigued diehard tennis fans and attracted even the most casual sports fan.

“Honestly, I never thought I’d be able to win this tournament. That’s what stands out to me three days later,” Federer told SI’s Sean Gregory just days after winning the fifth Australian Open title of his career. “I still cannot believe I was able to make it all happen. This one has a very special, different taste than all the other Grand Slams I ever won. Coming back, getting older, and people have written me off maybe, makes this one so unique.”

The win bolstered Federer’s slam count to 18, and to many, secured his place as the greatest player of all-time.

He entered the tournament with modest expectations and the Swiss legend said it himself, coming in as the draw’s 17th seed and playing his first competitive tournament in six months.

“I said the best I can do here is probably a fourth round or a quarterfinal, depending on the draw,” added Federer. “And I sit here as the champion. It’s really strange to me.”

Federer turned 35 last August and missed the bulk of the second half of 2016, skipping the French Open, the U.S. Open, the Olympics and the ATP Finals, to rehab his knee. He suffered the injury while prepping a bath for his kids and his career seemed to be trending downward.

Federer returned to the court in the beginning of this year at the Hopman Cup in Perth, Australia, a round-robin, team event. The fun, crowd-engaging atmosphere gave Federer a warm welcome back to the professional tennis court.

“One of the big reasons why I’m still playing tennis is to be able to enjoy these kinds of crowds because when I’m retired I won’t be able to see this anymore,” Federer said after beating Dan Evans 6-3, 6-4 in his first match back. “I’ll just be sitting here in a suit or something and it won’t be the same. So this was beautiful, it was nice, it was all worth it so far and I hope there’s more to come for me.”

The event was certainly happy to have him playing, as it sold out three sessions, plus the 6,000 spectators he drew in when he held a practice session open to the public.

“I think it’s been everything I hoped it would be,” Hopman Cup Tournament Director Paul Kilderry said. “Roger’s in a league of his own, from what I’ve seen.”

Feeling refreshed and playing with a nothing-to-lose attitude, Federer dazzled in Melbourne. After knocking off Jurgen Melzer in the opening round, he took on Long Island’s Noah Rubin in the second round.

Rubin, playing in the biggest match of his young career, played Federer tough, but was ultimately overmatched, and the 17th seed pushed through with a 7-5, 6-3, 7-6(3).

He then dismantled 10th seed Tomas Berdych 6-2, 6-4, 6-4 in what was his best performance of his first three matches, and it set up a showdown with fifth-seeded Kei Nishikori.

At 35-years-old and with only a few matches under his belt after a long absence, Federer showed off his fitness level, outlasting the relentless Nishikori 6-7(4), 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 to reach the final eight, the 49th Grand Slam quarterfinal of his career.

In the quarterfinals, it was supposed to be newly-minted world number one Andy Murray awaiting Federer, but those plans were foiled by German Mischa Zverev, who provided the biggest upset of the tournament, upending Murray 7-5, 5-7, 6-2, 6-4.

“I definitely did watch the match. It was played right before us and once I come into the building I watch tennis,” Federer said. “I thought it was another incredible match. Same when Denis [Istomin] beat Novak [Djokovic]. I would never have picked it. I like Mischa, he has a nice game coming forward. I’m happy for him. He was going for it and he deserved to win.”

It set up a matchup between two players with similar styles of play (serve and volley) but contrasting careers, and the last time they met, Federer handed the German a 6-0, 6-0 defeat back in 2013.

The score line was not as dramatic this time around, but it was still a routine 6-1, 7-5, 6-2 victory to book his spot in the final four. He then had to play another five-set match, and beat a third top 10 opponent, this time, his compatriot Stan Wawrinka, advancing in just over three hours.

After blowing a two-sets-to-love lead, Federer took a rare medical timeout before the fifth set began to collect his thoughts and regroup.

“I just said, ‘You know what, I never take injury timeouts;’ Stan already took his, so people won’t be mad,” said Federer in a playful and charming manner. “Stan won’t be mad, hopefully. It was on the set change and you just hope something works. That physio, he’s got some magic hands.”

The next day, Nadal hung on to beat Grigor Dimitrov in a thrilling, five-hour bout that was the best played match of the tournament, and it set up an epic final, one that tennis fans could only dream of. It was also a final matchup that ESPN and other television networks around the world that were broadcasting the match had dreamed of.

“This is a unique match to call because of the emotional investment fans make in this,” said ESPN announcer Chris Fowler, who called the match. “Not just when it’s Rafa versus Roger but this particular match. There are implications about each guy’s legacy. You are talking about 18 to 14 or 17 to 15 in terms of Slam counts. You are talking about Nadal making it five Slam finals in a row over Roger. Roger told me this would be his sweetest win ever. Not just because he is 35 and it’s been awhile but because it’s Rafa.”

With so much build up and hype, the final did not disappoint in the slightest. It went the full five-sets and was a back and forth showdown that will be remembered forever.

According to Sports Media Watch, the final was the highest-rated Australian Open final since the 2009 championship (also between Federer and Nadal). It pulled in a 0.7 final rating and 1.1 million viewers on ESPN, which was a 75 percent increase in ratings and 106 percent increase in viewership compared to the 2016 final between Djokovic and Murray. Not bad for a match that began at 3:30 a.m. on the East Coast.

It was Federer’s first victory over Nadal in a Grand Slam final since Wimbledon in 2007, and was the 35th total meeting between the all-time greats.

Both players were gracious to one another after the battle, and it bodes well for the rest of the 2017 season if these two have climbed back to the top level.

“Tennis is a tough sport. There are no draws. If there were I would have been happy to accept one and share it with Rafa,” Federer said. “Everybody says they work very hard—I do the same—but I try not to shout about it. I’d like to thank my team. It’s been a different last six months. I didn’t think I’d make it but here I am.”

Tennis fans are salivating at the thought of seeing Federer and Nadal going deep at Grand Slams as this year plays out. If the Australian Open is any indication, 2017 is shaping up to an exciting one in the world of tennis.

Brian Coleman

 Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at brianc@usptennis.com