The Back to the Future episodes at the 2017 Australian Open featured a cast of age-defying characters and logic-defying plots. Four charismatic immortals, two enduring rivalries, and potential record-smashing only added to the gripping climax of a suspenseful fortnight.
Switch the time machine back to 1998. It was at Melbourne Park that teenagers Venus and Serena Williams first battled in a Tour match. The prodigies from crime-ridden Compton, California, sporting beaded cornrows in their hair and matching braces on their teeth, fascinated everyone with their power and passion.
Now return to the present and witness the greatest siblings in sports history — still dazzling and durable. Almost unimaginably, Venus, 36, earned another chance for glory, despite energy-sapping Sjögren’s syndrome and without a Grand Slam title since beating Serena at the 2008 Wimbledon final. She strode onto Rod Laver Arena with a relaxed smile for her 15th major final. Serena, 35, despite being a heavy 1-5 favorite, entered with a deadly serious game face and earphones.
Nothing had changed for the fiercely competitive Serena since she was a little kid, the youngest of five sisters. “She always had to win, no matter if it was a talent show, cards, she had to be the winner,” her mother Oracene Price told espnW.com. “She would sit on cards. And they let her do it. They gave it to her, even if she didn’t win. I think it affects her to this day, because she hates losing. That’s how come it was so inappropriate when they (sceptics early in their careers) said we were setting (fixing) matches. Serena is not going to lose for no one.”
Surely not when yet another record is at stake. Tied at 22 major titles with German superstar Steffi Graf for the Open Era record, Serena wanted undisputed possession of that record just as badly as she wanted to beat her older sisters at cards 30 years ago. If there was any doubt about that, an incident in the third game of the Aussie Open final dispelled it.
Serena had nervously lost her serve to tie the match at 1-1. Venus fought off a break point with a volley winner to even the score at 40-40. On the next pivotal point, Serena slipped when surprised by a net cord and couldn’t reach it. Infuriated by her misfortune, Serena smashed her racket on the hard court, probably the earliest match racket smash in pro tennis history.
Seven-time major titlist Venus was no less hungry for victory. Nothing hurts more than losing to a younger sibling. And before their 28th career showdown, Venus remarked, “When I’m playing on the court with her, I think I’m playing the best competitor in the game. I don’t think I’m chump change, either. I can compete against any odds…. They have a second-place trophy nobody wants.”
Serena had prevailed in 16 of their previous 27 encounters, though, and this edition would once again demonstrate her superiority. Except for the volley, her strokes were sounder, particularly her versatile forehand and explosive serve, the most lethal in women’s tennis history. Serena also enjoyed an advantage in athleticism, speed, and stamina. Psychologists might also give Serena a mental edge because their father and first coach Richard always predicted she would become the more successful champion.
But no one could have predicted that these two battle-tested veterans — their combined 71 years, 11 months sets an “oldest” record for a major final — would start the match by losing their serves in the first four games. Tight as a drum, Serena shockingly double-faulted three times to give away the fourth game. Venus wasn’t much better. Sisters Sledgehammer, the nickname famed journalist-broadcaster Bud Collins gave them, were missing their mark. What was going on?
ESPN analyst Chris Evert, a tennis queen in the 1970s and 1980s, knew exactly because she played her younger and less accomplished sister Jeanne three times. “I felt sick to my stomach every time. I felt sorry for her,” Evert recalled. “But there was no way I was going to lose that match.”
Suddenly, nerves and sibling ambivalence disappeared. Their winners started exceeding their errors. Venus, the underdog and a more sympathetic figure than her polarizing sister, seemed buoyed by the fans, particularly after losing the first set 6-4. Down triple break point, she reeled off five straight points to hold serve for a 2-1 lead in the second set.
Could Venus pull another comeback like her 6-7, 6-2, 6-3 semifinal victory over American power hitter Coco Vandeweghe?
But not even a hot Coco can compare to Serena, who hadn’t lost a set in her six previous matches at Melbourne and boasted a 20-0 record after winning the first set in Grand Slam finals. Exhorting herself to calm down, Serena whacked a vicious backhand service return winner to break Venus’s serve and go ahead 4-3. The valiant Venus could not stop her muscular and masterful sister now. Serena routinely served out the championship game to prevail 6-4, 6-4.
After Serena collapsed on the court to celebrate her triumph — even though she rarely shows post-match happiness out of respect for her defeated sister — she embraced Venus for 30 seconds. Their sibling rivalry was instantly replaced by sibling love and appreciation.
“I would like to congratulate Venus,” Serena told the crowd during the poignant trophy presentation. “She’s an amazing person. There’s no way I would be at 23 without her. There’s no way I would have anything without her, and she is the only reason I’m standing here today. She’s the only reason that the Williams sisters exist. Thank you so much.”
Exuding love and admiration for Serena, Venus said, “That’s my little sister, guys. Congratulations on No. 23. I’ve been there right with you. Some of them I lost against you. That’s weird but it’s true. Your wins have always been my wins. Every time I couldn’t be there or didn’t get there, you were there. I’m enormously proud of you, and you mean the world to me.”
Serena, who also regained the No. 1 ranking, still trails Margaret Smith Court, who holds the all-time record of 24 major titles. But the Greatest of All Time (GOAT) debate is pretty much over. Court won 11 titles at the Australian Open during an era when its fields were typically weak.
If Serena remains healthy and motivated, she should eclipse Court, too. After all, in her last 10 majors, she’s won six and reached two finals and two semifinals. Serena became the oldest Slam winner in the Open Era at 35 years, 124 days, but age is an irrelevant number to Serena. “We’re both 30-fun, in our mid-30-funs,” she quipped.
Ageless Venus is far from finished, too. She’s talked about competing in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo when she’ll be 40.
In the near future, though, Serena plans to take a well-earned break from the Tour. She has another kind of match. She’s engaged to her biggest fan, social media site Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian.
Retro dream final lives up to expectations
Roger and Rafa. The Swiss maestro and the Spanish matador. Their riveting rivalry started with one wearing pirate pants and sleeveless shirts and the other with classic attire at the 2004 Miami Open. It peaked with epic duels at the 2008 Wimbledon Championships and the 2009 Australian Open. It was the greatest tennis show on earth.
But in 2011 Novak Djokovic and later Andy Murray dethroned them at one major after another as well as at the Olympics. Federer last captured a Grand Slam event at the 2012 Wimbledon, his record-tying seventh. Nadal last hoisted a Slam trophy at the 2014 French Open, his record ninth. Though diehard fans of Roger and Rafa worried that their heroes might be washed up, they never lost hope.
Just when their fans and everyone else least expected it, Roger and Rafa, like the Williams sisters, went “back to the future” and rediscovered the wizardry of their halcyon days. “I think both of us never thought we would be here,” Federer confided before the 2017 Australian Open final.
Federer injured his knee during his five-set loss to Milos Raonic in the 2016 Wimbledon semifinals and underwent the first surgery of his career, which caused him to sit out the last six months of 2016. Nadal missed the last four months of the year with a wrist injury.
Life without the two legends at the top even seemed bearable, at least to some aficionados. Before the 35th chapter of their storied rivalry, Mats Wilander, a 1980s star, acknowledged, “I was already prepared in the last couple of majors and I have to say ... I didn’t miss them that much.”
But Wilander echoed the sentiments of many, when he said, “Now they’re back I realize, wow, how much they add. They made it look so easy, Federer’s way of playing and Nadal’s way of being, it’s just so natural they’re going to win. Now it’s like going to see the (Rolling) Stones every night. For me it’s unbelievable.”
The greatest tennis show on earth was back in town. Even so, questions abounded about these past-their-prime giants. How would 35-year-old Federer respond after surviving five-set thrillers against No. 5 Kei Nishikori and No. 4 Stan Wawrinka? What about 30-year-old, oft-injured Nadal who staved off Next Gen standouts Alexander Zverev and Grigor Dimitrov in grueling five-setters, not to mention wins over rocket-serving No. 3 Milos Raonic and super-athlete No. 6 Gaël Monfils?
While Roger had an extra day of rest and five hours fewer in total court time played, Rafa had an advantage, too. He prepared for the final by playing a stylistically similar semifinal opponent in Dimitrov, a gifted, single-handed backhand righty once dubbed “Baby Fed.”
Nadal led their rivalry in just about every category: 23-11 overall, 6-2 in major finals, 10-9 on surfaces other than clay, and 3-0 at the Australian Open. But you could throw out those numbers because the friendly rivals had played only once in the past two years, when Federer took a three-set match at Basel in 2015.
Tactically, there would be no secrets. Each protagonist knew the other’s game inside and out. At the start of the season, the come-backing Nadal promised, “I want to make my forehand better. I want my opponent to feel pain.” Meanwhile, Federer’s pro-active plan was to go big or go home with his groundstrokes and win the position battle by hugging the baseline. Like in the old days, it would be the power grinder versus the virtuoso shot-maker.
Two other factors would benefit Federer: the recently resurfaced, faster Plexicushion courts and lighter, faster Wilson balls that take longer to fluff up and slow up.
Federer, the aggressor, grabbed the first set 6-4 with a service break in the seventh game, thanks to powerful serve returns and put-away volleys. “The fans want a five-setter,” offered ESPN analyst John McEnroe. They would get what they wanted, plus a smorgasbord of almost magical shots and unpredictable momentum changes.
Sensing he had to up the ante, Nadal added power and spin to his ferocious forehand and broke Federer’s serve twice to take the second set 6-3.
Federer delivered clutch aces on three break points to save the pivotal opening game of the pivotal third set. Hitting his backhand, the only potential weakness in his otherworldly arsenal of weapons, better than ever, Federer then completely reversed the momentum. No longer could the Nadal forehand exploit the Federer backhand. Federer raced through the third set, 6-1.
Nadal’s “way of being” was never more evident in the fourth set. Playing every point as if it were match point, he broke Federer for a 3-1 lead. Then he barely held serve for 4-1 with a phenomenal, improvised squash shot forehand impossibly angled to elude even the fleet Federer. “Nadal is the greatest competitor I’ve ever seen,” praised McEnroe. Nadal went on to seize the fourth set, 6-3. The momentum had changed again.
But could Nadal keep it?
Spectators roared in anticipation and delight before the fifth set started, much like they do for boxers before the 12th round of a close title fight. They were rewarded in the opening game when the Spaniard smacked four forehand winners to break serve. He sustained the momentum by escaping three break points to go ahead 2-0. Nadal survived yet another break point in his next service game with a backhand winner.
Nadal’s Houdini-like defense could fend off Federer’s offense for only so long. As Federer said after the final, “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’s bravery was rewarded. In the furiously fought sixth game, Nadal finally blinked, barely missing a forehand to lose serve and even the set at 3-3.
Like water boiling faster and faster, both players were playing their best at the same time with Nadal serving at 3-4. Yet again, Nadal escaped from a love-40, triple-break-point crisis. At deuce, Federer finished off a sensational, 26-shot power rally with a forehand winner. Three points later he broke serve to lead 5-3.
But the ultimate warrior Nadal made one last stand. He had a break point which Federer cruelly erased with a 124-mph ace. Another ace gave Federer championship point. Fittingly, it took a perfect forehand winner that clipped the sideline to finally put Nadal away.
After jumping for joy a few times like a little boy, Federer embraced Nadal and then wept briefly. The crowd cheered loudly in appreciation and perhaps also with nostalgia.
The most asked question in recent years — Can Federer win another major? — was resoundingly, even majestically, answered with this epic 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 triumph. As the oldest man to win a Grand Slam title in 45 years, The Mighty Fed extended his career record to 18 major titles, four more than Nadal and the retired Pete Sampras.
Federer, who has called himself Nadal’s “No. 1 fan,” graciously told the crowd, “I’d like to congratulate Rafa for an amazing comeback. Tennis is a tough sport. There are no draws in tennis, but I would have been happy to accept one tonight and share it with Rafa.”
This match for the ages showcased two ageless and beloved champions. Tennis was truly the biggest winner.
As Venus Williams eloquently put it, “I think why people love sport so much is because you see everything in a line. In that moment, there is no do-over. There’s no retake. There is no voice-over. It’s triumph and disaster witnessed in real time. This is why people live and die for sport, because you can’t fake it. You can’t. It’s either you do it or you don’t. People relate to the champion. They also relate to the person who didn’t win, because we all have those moments in our life.”
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