AO Insider: Aggression? Nope, patience was Roger Federer’s biggest weapon
In his final blog from the Australian Open, Tumaini Carayol explains how Roger Federer’s patience carried him to an 18th Grand Slam.
For mortals, patience is merely a virtue to take note of and heed. For Roger Federer, patience has now proven the gateway to his greatest ever triumph.
This characteristic was first required of Federer when, after his notorious back injury throughout 2013 sparked the first questions of retirement, he surprised the world by recovering to produce some of his best tennis between 2014 and 2015. Focusing all his talents into playing a brand of gung-ho tennis that had never fully been required with him during those years that everything came so easily, 30 plus-erer rose from his shallow grave to become the greatest threat to Novak Djokovic at the peak of his powers.
He came close, so close, to #18 much earlier: at the 2014 Wimbledon final, only eight points separated Federer from the title after his titanic comeback pushed him 4-4 in the fifth set against the Serb. But he wasn’t quite fast, durable or consistent enough to see off another all-time legend in his greatest years.
Patience was also of the utmost importance throughout a bizarre, alien 2016 that saw the previously indestructible Swiss riddled with multiple injuries. He took the decision to pull the plug on his year after Wimbledon, electing instead to play the long game. His best level in his latter years wasn’t quite enough to steal a Slam in the face of a fellow great at his peak, but if he refreshed his body and ensured that he was fully prepared for whenever the chips did fall his way, then maybe, just maybe, he would arm himself with his best chance of victory.
Finally, patience was the single most important weapon on the court as his greatest opportunity to win a Slam slowly diminished before him. After dropping serve in his opening service game of the final set to a man previously known as one of the best closers in the history of the game, it seemed the writing was on the wall. As usual, Federer brought up a ton of break points but the set seemed to assume an air of inevitability as Nadal rose to the challenge, saving a long stream of break points with forehand after violent forehand. But Federer waited, exhibiting patience with both his failed break point conquests and his enduring aggression. Finally, on Federer’s fifth break point, a Nadal forehand flew wide. The Swiss wouldn’t lose another game.
“I think this one will take more time to sink in. When I go back to Switzerland, I'll think, Wow,” he said afterwards, sighing with relief. “The magnitude of this match is going to feel different. I can't compare this one to any other one except for maybe the French Open in '09. I waited for the French Open, I tried, I fought. I tried again and failed. Eventually I made it. This feels similar.”
In the end, it’s in this manner that Federer’s 18th victory should be scribed into the history books. Nobody expected that he would arrive at his first official tournament back after six months out and triumph, not least Federer himself. However, there was never, or at least shouldn’t have ever been, any doubt about his continued ability to win Slams if he remained healthy. Despite those injuries, he reached the semi-finals of the two Slams he did play in 2016 and probably would have contested the Wimbledon final had he not further hurt his knee in the fifth set of the semi-final against Milos Raonic.
Though his moment of triumph seemed to come at breakneck speed over the past fortnight, five long years of patience were handsomely rewarded. He waited, he tried, he fought, he tried again and he failed. But finally, surreally, Roger Federer really did make it.
“I told myself to play free,” said Federer afterwards. “That's what we discussed with Ivan and Severin before the matches. 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. I didn't want to go down just making shots, seeing forehands rain down on me from Rafa. I think it was the right decision at the right time.”
One of the most essential qualities of late career Federer has been the manner in which he has narrowed and focused his tactics, the aforementioned aggression more than ever before. A necessary reaction to Novak Djokovic’s supremacy, viewers and most rivals became more accustomed to Federer’s aggression throughout 2014 and 2015.
However, as some rushed to emphasize the supremacy of Nadal in this great match-up of contrasting styles, this one detail was missed. Nadal hasn’t faced Federer in a meaningful Slam match since the 2014 Australian Open. This showed as the Spaniard spoke in defeat. Nadal’s constant mentions of Federer’s obvious aggression, and the fact that he was unable to find solutions to combat it, highlighted the fact that he simply wasn’t accustomed to his rival’s updated style of play.
“But is true that after I had the break, he played very aggressive, hitting a lot of great shots. So was tough to hold the serve every time, no?” Nadal said. “I had the chance to keep holding the serve. If I hold that one, you never know. You are two games, just two games away. But I didn't, so... Well, that's it, no? I believe that he played super aggressive during the whole match. Tough chances to play the way I wanted to play. But still like this, I played, I think, with the right attitude, trying to do my things, fighting for every ball.”
It’s ironic considering, throughout their careers, Nadal was always the tinkerer, dramatically changing countless aspects of his game, while Federer favoured the rigid security of his talent. But in these later years, the roles have delicately reversed. As Nadal continues his search to rediscover the old dimensions of his game - his effective serve, his omnipotent forehand down the line - Federer and, in particular, the aggression radiating off his backhand side as well as his forehand, his own tinkering proved key to upheaving enough aspects of this horrendous match-up for him to turn it in his favour.
The tennis never stops. Up in St. Petersberg, a group of young WTA stars including Daria Kasatkina, Daria Gavrilova, Kristina Mladenovic and Belinda Bencic, Federer’s countrywoman and doubles partner earlier in the month, put off their final preparations for the new tournament in order to watch the great final.
Despite the Australian Open ending in two otherworldly feel-good moments that helped to distract from the troubles of today, not all subjects can be avoided. Before the finals, Australian Open released a video of the players wishing Petra Kvitova well after last year’s ordeal.
Quote of the final
" It's beautiful for all of us. I know how happy [my team is] because they are more than just a coach or a physio or whatever. They're all my friends. So we spent a lot of time, you know, talking about am I going to get back to 100%, and if I did, what would it require to win a Grand Slam. Now we made it. We're going to be partying like rock stars tonight. I can tell you that."