In his book Rafa: My Story, Spanish tennis great Rafael Nadal talks about playing with his long-time arch-rival and friend, Roger Federer’s mind. He admits that though Roger is a superior player than him, he has the mental advantage over the Swiss.
And Roger knows that. Throughout his career, he’s always been trying to break the Rafa ‘jinx’. But Rafa always had an upper hand over him, leading their 13-year rivalry 23-11 (as of 2016). Rafa had won all three meetings at the Australian Open. His edge in Grand Slams was 9-2. Most importantly, Roger hadn’t beaten Rafa when it counted — in a Grand Slam — in almost a decade, since the 2007 Wimbledon finals.
While both sets of fans had their arguments of which of the two was the greatest, with Roger obviously having won more Grand Slam titles, their dominance of the tennis world was never in doubt.
Then entered Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. Suddenly, the Federer-Rafa rivalry wasn’t the most talked about. It was replaced by the antics of Nick Krygios or the eccentricity of Gael Monfils. Stan Wawrinka won a couple of Grand Slams; Marin Cilic triumphed at Arthur Ashe Stadium. Rafa was at a constant war with his body. His main goal was recovering properly. While Roger came close to winning, he found it difficult to match Djokovic’s athleticism and fiery returns.
The hopes of another Federer-Nadal Grand Slam final were soon diminished. But this year’s Australian Open proved that the ‘ageless wonders’ can never be taken for granted. Roger was coming off a six-month injury layoff. Rafa too was in his comeback mode after being out for most of last season.
At 35, Roger’s rankings had plunged to 17. His body was creaking. The bookmakers had placed odds of 20/1 on him winning the title, the same number they had given to Milos Raonic, and significantly lesser than Djokovic, Murray, Wawrinka and Rafa. Not even Roger himself had any real hopes of winning the title. “A quarterfinal I thought will be a great tournament,” he later said.
With Djokovic and Murray out of the way early on, the stage was set for the unlikeliest, most surreal final. Rafa had beaten ‘Baby Federer’ Grigor Dimitrov in the semi-final, and perhaps got a taste or five of what was to come in the final. Rafa used his left-handed topspin to keep Baby Fed off balance and beat him in a gruelling slugfest.