It was the final that promised so much.
Roger Federer against Rafael Nadal, grace against grit, attack against defence, the greatest of all time against his greatest foe.
It is hard to remember a more anticipated sporting contest than Sunday’s Australian Open decider between the famous rivals and, over the weekend, scalpers were offering tickets online for more than $A17,000.
But it lived up to all the hype, and more, as Federer staged a backs-to-the-wall fightback to win 6-4 3-6 6-1 3-6 6-3 in a truly classic final.
In a match that ebbed and flowed consistently, now-18-time-grand-slam-champion Federer, trailing 1-3 in the fifth set, looked gone, even though Nadal was having some issues on serve.
His 35-year-old body – far from match-hardened after a six-month injury-induced break in the second half of 2016 – was breaking down.
Federer, without a grand slam win since 2012, had already disappeared off court for a medical timeout at the end of the fourth and, just minutes after the resumption, sought further assistance for an adductor problem, this time in full view of Nadal.
The Swiss maestro, five years older than Nadal, was down a break, too, and things looked bleak.
To the delight of the Rod Laver Arena crowd, however, it was far from over, and Federer’s cheap hold for 2-3 was followed by jitters on serve from Nadal, who again conceded break points. This time, he ran out of get-out-of-jail-free cards.
The Spaniard has made an art form out of saving break points during his glittering career, a skill he showcased in the dying stages of his semi-final win over Grigor Dimitrov, and, up until Federer’s match-turning break, he had already rescued five in the fifth set.
Had he saved a sixth and gone on to hold serve, Nadal’s name would likely be on the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup.
He finally erred, though, missing a forehand that saw the Melbourne fans rise as one to celebrate.
They wanted a classic and they were getting it. Things were back on serve at 3-3.
The momentum shift was dramatic, as Federer then held to love in rapid time to lead 4-3, and he looked sure to break at 0-40 in the next.
Nadal’s ability to scrap under the most intense pressure was again on full display, and he recovered to deuce, only for Federer to end a 26-shot rally with a sublime forehand down the line that won him another break point.
Yet again, Nadal saved his skin, but, with his 11th break point of the fifth set, Federer finally made the breakthrough.
Serving for the match, Federer stuttered, first falling to 0-30, and then hitting long on his first championship point.
But he steeled himself, for one last time, as a forehand winner – incorrectly challenged by Nadal – sealed the most popular of victories.
“This was a wonderful run here and I can’t be more happy to have won tonight,” a typically gracious Federer said in the post-match ceremony.
“I’d like to congratulate Rafa on an amazing comeback [from a wrist injury]. I’m happy for you. I would have been happy to lose, too, to be honest.
“Tennis is a tough sport. There’s no draws, but if there was one, I would have been very happy to accept a draw tonight and share it with Rafa, really. Keep playing, Rafa, please, tennis needs you.”
Nadal warned the tennis world that he was back despite acknowledging Federer had been the better player.
“I think it was a great match. Probably Roger deserved it a little bit more than me,” he said.
“I [am] just going to keep trying. I feel like I am back at [a] very high level.”
Nadal was on the back foot from the start as the eventual winner raced through the opening set in just 35 minutes, hitting 13 winners to five in the process.
The Spaniard got things back on his terms in the second, causing particular problems with the amount of spin he was able to put on the ball, but he was shown up in the third by Federer’s sublime stroke-making.
The topsy-turvy nature of the encounter continued as Nadal won the fourth, but, when push came to shove, it was Federer who played the bigger moments better.
The 2017 edition of the Australian Open will live long in the memory of sports fans. The incredible storylines it provided made it a grand slam for the ages.
And it was only fitting that it ended with a match for the ages.