In the first 5-set Australian Open final since 1988, Rafa Nadal has solidified his stranglehold on the worlds # 1 ranking with a 7-5, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 6-2 victory in front of an emotionally charged sellout crowd at Rod Laver Arena. While both players shined, trading superb shotmaking for much of the 4 hour and 23 minute affair, the difference in the match can be attributed to a remarkably courageous cluster of games during the third set in which Nadal found another level that left Federer on the outside looking in.
At 4-4 in the third set (with the match tied at a one set apiece), Federer, who was 4 for 11 in break point opportunities at that juncture, found himself with a triple break point. If he could convert it, he'd more than likely seize the momentum, serve out the set, and be on his way to a record tying 14th major championship.
But Rafa resisted. No, check that, he attacked. He crushed a cross court backhand to get to 15-40, proving once again that he has ice in his veins. On the next point, Rafa, clearly relishing the pressure rather than bowing beneath it, crushed another winner, this one an inside out forehand with plenty of mustard that Federer wasn't even close to. Finally, a confounded Federer netted a return and Rafa was back to deuce. He closed the game to lead 5-4 in the set, but wasn't out of the woods yet.
At 5-5, Federer had another three break points, and again, Rafa fought for the hold, playing masterful tennis at the most crucial of times, and elevating his shotmaking to an almost superhuman level. When the game ended, even though Federer would still be serving to force a tiebreaker (which he did, after fighting off a break point), one could sense that something of vital importance had been proven - that Nadal was tireless, indefatigable, and would not be denied.
Several minutes later Federer's streak of 5 consecutive tiebreakers (the one edge he did have over Rafa in their meetings of late) was over. Rafa had prevailed, and took a 2 sets to 1 lead. He had imposed his will over Federer. In a sense, we were witnessing Rafa's advantage - it was psychological more than anything else. His belief system was firmly in place, and Federer's was not.
As the fourth set began, however, Federer, with his back against the wall, began to show his teeth again. Finally, realizing that he had to go for broke, that he had to punish the punisher, he converted on two break points and used a series of pristine drop shots that were so effective that it appeared that he may have actually found a way to wear Nadal out. He served the set out with relative ease, and the match was even at 2 sets apiece.
Sadly for Federer, the beast in Rafa emerged as the fifth set began. And so did the belief.
The hunt was on once again. Adrenaline supplanted doubt, fire supplanted fatigue, and Rafa, exhibiting a boldness that was palpable (you could almost feel his belief), started to sink his teeth into his opponent. Federer had no answer for Nadal's persistence in the fifth set; perhaps he had realized in that pivotal third set that it would be useless to try.
Our heavenly father commited errors at an alarming rate, 9 of them all told, against one for Nadal, and Rafa cruised to the finish line, taking the 5th set easily by the margin of 6-2.
After playing 9 hours and 37 minutes of extremely physical tennis in two days, Rafa's empire has deservedly expanded. He now has won 3 different majors, and 6 total. In the process Nadal has, like a raging bull in a china shop, intruded upon another of our heavenly fathers dominions - the hard court. If you watched the post match awards ceremony (see picture directly above), it was plain to see that Fed is not thrilled about that. His heartfelt tears of sorrow showed just how bad he wants to equal Sampras' feat of 14 majors. There is a huge weight on his shoulders and it shows. He needs to find a way to remove this weight in order to continue on his quest.
Meanwhile, as Fed cried his eyes out, Rafa was photographed sinking his championship teeth into a brand new trophy; in his mind he has nothing to lose - as long as he believes that, he will be a very different beast to try to subdue.