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Federer conquers time, Nadal

“I told myself to play free,” says Roger Federer, who extends his men’s Grand Slam title record to 18.

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“I told myself to play free,” says Roger Federer, who extends his men’s Grand Slam title record to 18.

MELBOURNE, Australia — It was Roger Federer's unlikeliest victory in a major tournament — quite a statement for a 35-year-old who has now won 18 of them.

But where else should one rank this Australian Open, where Federer was rightfully viewed as an underdog? Where he arrived seeded 17th, having not played an official tournament for more than six months? Where he faced his friendly rival Rafael Nadal in the final on sore legs?

Even Federer's expectations were tempered, for a change.

"I would have said a great event would be quarters," he said. "Fourth round would be nice."

Federer got a great deal more than that in Melbourne. He became the oldest man to win a major singles title in 45 years and did it by defeating Nadal 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 to win the Australian Open for the fifth time.

"You don't know if they ever come back, these moments," said Federer, who had not won a major title since Wimbledon in 2012 and who had not beaten Nadal in a Grand Slam final since Wimbledon in 2007.

Federer played here with verve and precision but had to scrap his way through three five-set matches in the final four rounds, receiving plenty of treatment between duels. Although he did not have to deal with the world's two leading players, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, who were upset in the first week, Federer did face top 10 opponents aplenty.

He defeated four of them: Tomas Berdych, Kei Nishikori, Stan Wawrinka and Nadal, the swashbuckling left-hander who has so often thwarted Federer on big occasions but who failed to seal the deal Sunday despite taking a 3-1 lead in the fifth set.

That was perhaps when Federer's tempered expectations helped him most. He stuck with the game plan he and his coaches, Severin Luethi and Ivan Ljubicic, had discussed.

"I told myself to play free," Federer said. "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.' "

Few could have foreseen this final when the Australian Open began. This was Federer's first official tournament after a long break because of knee problems in 2016. Nadal ended last season early, too, after an injury to his left wrist. And yet the occasion felt so familiar, inciting global interest and nostalgia for the days when Federer-Nadal summit meetings were a staple.

The victory significantly increased Federer's chances of remaining the career leader in men's Grand Slam singles titles. With 18, he has a more comfortable lead over Nadal, tied with Pete Sampras for second at 14.

"That's the smallest part, to be honest," Federer said. "For me, it's all about the comeback, about an epic match with Rafa again."

Sunday's extended test of talent and perseverance will surely make the short list of greatest Federer-Nadal matches, especially if it turns out to be their last mutual hurrah in a Grand Slam final.

"Being honest, in these kinds of matches I won a lot of times against him," said Nadal, who has long dominated their series and still leads 23-12. "Today he beat me, and I just congratulate him."

Federer conquers time, Nadal 01/29/17 [Last modified: Sunday, January 29, 2017 9:30pm]
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