Last Sunday, thousands of American tennis fans rose before dawn (or in some cases neglected to sleep altogether) to watch what Andy Roddick brazenly dubbed “the most important tennis match of all time.” Against all odds, 35-year-old Swiss champion Roger Federer had reached the finals of the 2017 Australian Open, where he would face his longtime rival Rafael Nadal in a rematch of the historic 2009 Aussie Open final.
Roddick’s audacious claim was backed by plenty of evidence. If Federer won the match, he would capture his 18th Grand Slam title, four titles more than his closest competitors, Nadal and Pete Sampras. A victory on Sunday would also make the Swiss the first player ever to win three Grand Slam tournaments at least five times, a remarkable feat that could stand unchallenged for decades. Nadal, for his part, would become the first player in history to complete a Career Slam (winning all four Grand Slam tournaments) twice if he managed to outduel his nemesis, as well as move closer to besting Federer’s record of 17 total Grand Slam titles.
Though a victory at Rod Laver Arena would mark a historic moment in both players’ careers, the stakes of the match were marginally higher for Federer who, in addition to holding a disappointing 2-9 record against Nadal in Grand Slam contests, had the opportunity to silence his doubters and cement his legacy as the greatest male tennis player of the Open Era.
The hype surrounding the match, fueled in large part by the two players’ historic rivalry, was exacerbated by the fact that Sunday could very well have been the last time Federer and Nadal meet in a Grand Slam final. Though he has managed to remain healthy for practically all of his career, Federer was sidelined over half of the 2016 season due to nerve damage in his surgically-repaired knee. The long absence caused his ranking plummet from No. 3 in the world to No. 17 entering the Australian Open. Nadal’s career, meanwhile, has been plagued by constant injuries (a direct consequence of his frenzied and demanding style of play), and despite being five years younger than Federer, the Spaniard’s ailing body will likely prevent him from reaching many more Grand Slam finals in the future.
With all the anticipation surrounding the match, it seemed impossible that the 2017 Australian Open final would live up to the world’s lofty expectations. And yet…
From the match’s first heated exchange (which Nadal won off a screaming backhand that pulled Federer off the court), it became apparent that this would rank among the top contests in the history of the sport. Both players excelled at what they did best; Federer glided around the court with all the grace and poise of a world-class figure skater, executing the most challenging shots with practiced ease. His masterful angles and pinpoint serving awarded him the first and third sets of the match. Nadal, in contrast, peppered his opponent with balls so laden with spin that Federer was often compelled to reach well over his head in order to return them. By sticking to this game plan, which has won him many a match against Federer, Nadal was able to claim the match’s second and fourth sets.
Early in the decisive final set, all signs pointed towards Nadal taking the match and capturing his 15th Grand Slam title. Up 3-2 and 40-30, the Spaniard had an opportunity to serve out the game and take a decisive 4-2 lead. Yet, in what was perhaps the biggest moment of his 17-year career, Federer refused to give in to his longtime foe. The Swiss won four consecutive games to steal the match from right under Nadal’s nose, with the final scoreboard reading 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 in favor of Federer.
Federer’s victory on Sunday makes it official: the Swiss champion can now safely be called the greatest male tennis player of all time.
No less dramatic was the women’s singles final between Serena Williams and her older sister, Venus Williams. Although the final was just another iteration of the rivalry that has defined both of their tennis careers, this match was special. It was Venus’s first match in a grand slam final since Wimbledon in 2009, after which, in 2011, she was diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome–an autoimmune disorder that limited both the amount of time she could spend on the practice court and prevented her from performing at her top level. In addition, with the victory, Serena surpassed Steffi Graff to lead the list of most grand slam singles titles won by a woman in the Open Era with 23 titles, second only to Margaret Court’s 24 titles on the all-time list.
Serena’s victory, although taken by a tight score, was a classic Serena match. Although both sisters play a very similar game, using powerful strokes to overpower their opponents on both wings, Serena was just a little bit stronger, able to handle the hard, flat shots that Venus couldn’t cope with. This largely has to do with Serena’s greater strength compared to Venus, but it’s expected that a player who focuses on hitting powerful shots is making a trade-off with movement around the court. Not so for Serena. Her balance, footwork, and overall movement were not only superior to her sister’s, but were also some of her best movement to date. Throughout the match, especially in tight moments, when Serena was down 15-30 or 15-40 and at risk of giving away the set, her mighty serve, which can reach up to 125 mph and is modeled after that of Pete Sampras, routinely saved the day and either aced or forced an error from Venus.
Over the years, there have been some questions about match-fixing between the sisters, but in the end, Serena is, and has for a long time been, the better player of the two. But which sister is more skilled at tennis is inconsequential when their influence and legacies, both on and off the court, are examined. Coming from Compton, California, the Williams sisters were able to rise through racial barriers and the rankings to become two of the first successful black players in women’s tennis, and have backed up their tennis play with fashion lines, charities, and other entrepreneurial ventures. When both Serena and Venus eventually leave the game of tennis, it will be a sad day for all fans of the sport. But until they do, their latest meeting at the Australian Open should be cherished as another match to remember.