Federer 2017: Coming back stronger

  • Matt Trollope

Was Australian Open 2017 Roger Federer’s finest Grand Slam triumph?

With an all-time male record of 20 major crowns, his memorable victories are plentiful. The compelling five-set Wimbledon finals of 2007 and 2009; the Australian Open 2007 title, achieved without losing a set, his breakthrough at Roland Garros in 2009, completing a career Grand Slam.

But given what preceded it, and what he achieved in winning it, Federer’s 2017 run at Melbourne Park could be his career high-point.

Six months earlier, he lay prone on Wimbledon’s Centre Court after his left knee buckled during the fifth set of his semifinal loss to Milos Raonic. It marked the last time he competed in 2016.


 

“The diminishing of a myth, the eroding of a legend, these things do come to pass, and not always on self-appointed dates,” said The Telegraph. “(Federer) insists he will be back … but what the seven-time Wimbledon champion desires, and what the 34-year-old body will permit, might, just might, be two different things.”

The left knee that failed him during the Wimbledon semifinal had required surgery earlier that year to repair a torn meniscus.

He played just 28 matches in 2016 (his lowest tour-level total since 1998) and went title-less for the first time since 2000. His French Open absence was the first time he had missed a Grand Slam main draw since the 1999 US Open.

“I hope I didn't hurt myself,” Federer said after the Raonic loss. “I walked it off. I was able to finish. But I don't slip a lot. I don't ever fall down. It was a different fall for me than I've ever had.”

By opting to rehabilitate during the second half of 2016, he subsequently fell outside the top 10 for the first time since October 2002. And when he arrived at Australian Open 2017, he was ranked No.17 – his lowest ranking since June 2001.

The return

While Federer was impressive in his first competitive outing two weeks earlier at the Hopman Cup, he attained an incredible level against 10th-ranked Tomas Berdych at Melbourne Park, swatting the Czech aside 6-2 6-4 6-4.

“It's wonderful. It's just crazy how quick I got out of the blocks,” Federer said. “Everything clicked.”

He then beat fifth seed Kei Nishikori in the last 16 and fourth seed Stan Wawrinka in the semis to arrive in the final, where career nemesis Rafael Nadal loomed.

When the Spaniard took the fourth set and broke Federer early in the fifth, a familiar pattern was unfolding. 

At this point in their rivalry, Nadal led the series 23-11. Federer had lost all their prior Australian Open meetings (2009, 2012 and 2014) and had not defeated Nadal at a Grand Slam tournament in 10 years. He was 2-6 against Nadal in major finals and 2-9 in their 11 slam meetings, losing the last six.

I told myself to play free. You play the ball, you don't play the opponent. Be free in your head, be free in your shots, go for it. The brave will be rewarded.
Roger Federer

Yet from 3-1 down, Federer staged the most unlikely of comebacks.

In a thrilling eighth game, the Swiss won a 26-shot rally with a scorching forehand winner down the line, going on to break for a 5-3 lead.

In a tense final game, on his second championship point, Federer landed a forehand winner to claim his first Grand Slam title since Wimbledon 2012.

“I told myself to play free. You play the ball, you don't play the opponent. Be free in your head, be free in your shots, go for it. The brave will be rewarded here,” Federer reflected.

“I didn't want to go down … seeing forehands rain down on me from Rafa.

“I kept on fighting. I kept on believing.”

Federer won Australian Open 2017 by beating four top-10 opponents, three of them in five sets – a staggering outcome given his lack of match play.

And what followed was one of the then-35-year-old’s most brilliant seasons.

He beat Nadal in all four of their 2017 meetings, won seven titles from eight finals – including a 19th Slam at Wimbledon and Masters trophies at Indian Wells, Miami and Shanghai – and vaulted from world No.17 to No.2.

After posting a 54-5 win-loss record in 2017, he began 2018 by defending his Australian Open title, his third victory at the past five majors.

All this was undoubtedly far from his mind when he lay slumped at Wimbledon 2016.