There are, of course, four Grand Slam finals in tennis every year, but a Grand Final comes along much more rarely. The term Grand Final is used in rugby league for the annual showcase finals to determine the winner of that season’s Super League or National Rugby League in Australia, but if it is applied to other sports, including tennis, it denotes both greatness and uniqueness: the sense that a final is not just any old run-of-the-mill final, but a truly special one, perhaps even one that defines a whole era. In Melbourne last weekend, Roger Federer finally won a Grand Final, having previously lost two of the grandest finals ever, and in the process secured his legacy as surely the greatest male tennis player ever.
There have been Grand Finals of this kind before the current Federer-Nadal-Djokovic era. Three immediately spring to mind. Pete Sampras’s last Grand Slam final, the US Open in 2002, in which he defeated his arch-rival Andre Agassi, then immediately retired from the sport he had dominated for nearly a decade. The epic 1980 Wimbledon final between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, which Borg eventually won in five sets, but only after McEnroe had pushed him so hard that he finally realised he could beat the icy Swede (and the following year he duly did). Finally the 1972 Wimbledon final between America’s Stan Smith and Romania’s Ilie Nastase, in which upright all-American Smith defeated the original wild man of tennis in five absorbing sets.
However, it is arguable that the greatest Grand Finals of all have come in the last ten years, during which Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have fought out a succession of extraordinary Grand Slam finals that vindicate John McEnroe’s view that they are three of the five greatest male players ever (the other two, in McEnroe’s view, being Pete Sampras and Rod Laver, so neither he nor Bjorn Borg make his all-time top five). In the process, they have created the greatest sporting rivalry since Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman literally fought each other to a standstill (and very nearly to the death) in their astonishing series of world heavyweight boxing fights in the early to mid-1970s.
The only other comparable rivalry in individual sports, as opposed to team sports, is that of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player in golf in the 1960s and 1970s, but such is the nature of golf that even those great players rarely faced off against each other directly for the greatest prizes. Both boxing and tennis are far more gladiatorial than golf.
Grand Finals of the Modern Era
The first Grand Final of the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic era was at Wimbledon in 2008, when Federer and Nadal finally surpassed the Borg-McEnroe masterclass of 1980 with their own incredible “Duel in the Dark” (as it finally became, after nearly five hours and five sets of remarkable tennis). Of course, Nadal eventually won, 9-7 in the fifth, in the process preventing Federer from winning a record sixth Wimbledon title in a row and thus ending the first, almost superhuman phase of his career, during which he had won 11 Major titles in four years.
The second Grand Final of this period did not involve Federer at all, as Djokovic defeated Nadal in the 2012 Australian Open Final, which was an even longer match than Wimbledon 2008; in fact, at nearly six hours, it is the longest ever Grand Slam Final. In many ways, that year in Melbourne Djokovic did to Nadal what Nadal himself had done to Federer at Wimbledon in 2008: he shattered his aura of (apparent) invincibility and in the process cemented his own position as the new world leader of men’s tennis.
The third Grand Final between two of these three great players was the Wimbledon final of 2014, when Djokovic defeated Federer in another five-set classic, albeit one that lasted a mere four hours. The irony here is entirely intentional. Djokovic’s victory, which he repeated at Wimbledon the following year in a far inferior final, seemed to confirm that Federer’s finest days were finally behind him and that he would never win another Grand Slam again.
That belief, which had become widespread even among the most dedicated “Fed-Heads”, for whom the sainted Roger has always been less of a tennis player and more of a demi-god in tennis shoes, who wielded a racket as beautifully as William Shakespeare once wielded a quill, persisted until last weekend, when, to use the memorable phrase of one excited tweeter: “Fed Came Back From The Dead”.
Roger Federer back from the dead
Although this year’s Australian Open Final was undeniably a Grand Final because of the implications it would have for both players’ standing in the game (as Andy Roddick said before the match, “It is certainly the most important Australian Open ever and arguably the most important Grand Slam Final ever”), it could not quite match the consistent brilliance of the other Grand Finals of the last ten years. Put simply, and probably because of their advancing years, for the first four sets Federer and Nadal both played superbly, but rarely at the same time. Each set was effectively won by one player rapidly asserting his dominance over the other, only for the feat to be reversed in the following set, such that they split the first four sets evenly.
The fifth set, however, was a reminder of the two men’s greatness, not only individually but as a double act. When Nadal broke Federer early and then resisted all of Federer’s efforts to break back in his next two service games, despite the Swiss having a plethora of break-point opportunities, it seemed that Federer would complete an utterly unwanted hat-trick of losing three Grand Finals.
Then, of course, the tide unexpectedly turned, or, rather, Federer forced it to turn, as he finally broke Nadal’s serve in the sixth game to draw level at three games all, before riding the wave of his own incredible talent to win five games in a row and take the title. That was despite Nadal putting up one of the most incredible pieces of resistance ever seen on a tennis court, as he tried to stem the flow of games against him. In that final stage of the final set of what may well be the last Grand Slam Final that they ever play against each other, both men confirmed what had long seemed apparent – that Federer, with his bewildering repertoire of shots and seemingly effortless footwork, is the greatest attacking player tennis has ever seen, and Nadal is the greatest defensive player ever, uncannily imitating a wall as he always somehow got the ball back into play. Of course, eventually the great attacker won.
Roger Federer cements his legacy
Huge plaudits have deservedly been paid to both men, not only for their greatness on the court but for their gentlemanliness and geniality afterwards, with Federer memorably saying that a “draw” would have been a fair result and one that he would have accepted. However, if the match had somehow ended in a tie, it would ultimately have been damaging for Federer’s legacy, because then he would never have won one of the Grand Finals staged in this era.
That he has finally won one not only allows him to put behind him the horrendous memories of the Wimbledon defeats by Nadal in 2008 and Djokovic in 2014. It also completely confirms, I believe, his position as the greatest male tennis player of all time, because in Melbourne last weekend he somehow returned, at the very end of the final and when all seemed lost, to the superhuman tennis that he had shown so consistently for nearly five years in the noughties. Indeed, it was even more impressive because it was not being played against Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt or Marat Safin, or even against a young Nadal or Djokovic, but against a Nadal who, if not quite at his peak, was far closer to it than anyone had ever thought possible after his years of injury.
One final thought: the term “Greatest of All Time” is often hideously shortened to the acronym, “GOAT”. It is a doubly unfortunate acronym, not only because of its basic ugliness but because anyone deserving of the title in their respective sport, such as Muhammad Ali or Roger Federer, is surely far more like a lion or an eagle than a goat. But last weekend, at the death, Federer was like a Swiss mountain goat, somehow surviving what looked like an avalanche as Nadal swept past him in the fifth set, before somehow keeping his footing amid the wreckage and gracefully making his way back to the very top of the mountain.