It was left vs right, defence vs offence, topspin vs slice, truncheon vs wand, slam-dancing vs modern dance. It was, well, you get the point.
In the end, it was a bit of a rout. Heading into the match, it was a Grand Slam Final in all but name. It loomed as one of the important matches of either’s career. A Nadal win would lock in his ownership of the 17-time Grand Slam champion.
With a crook hand and on a court that is too quick for his liking, it would prove emphatically that he could beat Federer on any surface, under any sky and in any vein of form. For Federer, a win would exorcise all sorts of demons – the Roland Garros drubbings, the on-court tears, the lopsided head-to-head record. It would herald a dramatic turnaround from a 2013 where he was shrivelled to mortal proportions. Just two weeks ago, his profiles read like epitaphs.
But he arrived in Melbourne with a new coach, a bigger racket and a renewed swagger. If ever he was going to get Rafa, it was now. As always, he strolled onto Rod Laver Arena like he was boarding a yacht. Nadal, with his ticks and his veins and his calisthenics, resembled a light-heavyweight prizefighter.
From the get-go, it was clear that Federer had his mind set to attack, rushing the net at every possibility. Nadal was obviously going to pounce on anything resembling a short ball however and at 3-3, he torched a curling forehand winner down the line to set up two break points. He failed to convert but the rallies were getting noticeably longer, with Nadal pounding Federer’s backhand with heavy topspin, long considered his Achilles’ heel.
In a backcourt war of attrition, only one man was going to prevail. Nadal took the tiebreak and tended to his blister. The Dodger, presumably, pondered the Spaniard’s peerless record of converting first set leads.
Soon after, the most imperturbable of individuals was in a tizz. Federer was peeved at Nadal’s medical time out, peeved at the length of time he took between points and peeved at his incessant grunting.
Could he win angry? Or did he have to operate in a zen-like state? It was Nadal who had the answers.
When he retrieved a perfect Federer volley with a preposterous squash-like hack that fizzed over the net, he had just invented another tennis shot and secured another set winning break. Federer simply couldn’t get a look in against the Spaniard’s serve and had resorted to a hit and hope type approach.
When he missed a dolly of a volley to drop serve early in the third, Nadal had his foot on his throat. Federer promptly broke back but the savagery of Nadal’s ground-strokes would prove decisive.
One of his former hitting partners once said that returning his forehand felt like ‘he’s breaking your arm’. Federer would no doubt concur. Nadal pounded and pounded and Federer, like so many times before, succumbed. With some of the all-time-greats of the game looking on, the Spaniard secured the most impressive of straight sets wins and turned his attention to his 19th Grand Slam final.