Roger Federer had nowhere to hide.
Rod Laver was about to present the cup to Australian Open champion Rafael Nadal. Federer stood on the court, having just missed his first chance to equal Pete Sampras’ record 14 Grand Slam singles titles. He was sobbing. He couldn’t speak. “In the first moment you’re disappointed, you’re shocked, you’re sad, then all of a sudden it overwhelms you,” Federer finally said, referring to his 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-2 loss to Nadal in a momentum-swinging, 4-hour, 22-minute title match Sunday night.
“The problem is you can’t go in the locker room and just take it easy and take a cold shower. You’re stuck out there. It’s the worst feeling. … It’s rough.”
Nadal, the first Spanish man to win the Australian Open, beat Federer in Grand Slam finals on clay and grass last year. He added the missing link Sunday with his first major title on hard courts.
The 22-year-old Spaniard is 5-2 against Federer in championship matches at the majors – 3-0 in the last three – and 13-6 in career meetings. The most riveting was Nadal’s five-set, four-hour, 48-minute win over Federer at Wimbledon last year, ending the Swiss star’s five-year reign on grass.
Now, 40 years after Rod Laver last won the Grand Slam – all four majors in one season – Nadal is the only man who can emulate him in 2009.
Federer had been the most likely of the recent contenders, missing by one in 2006 and 2007 – losing to Nadal at Roland Garros both years. Clay remains his obstacle. And the French Open was the only major missing in Sampras’ career.
“God, it’s killing me,” Federer said, crying, as he tried at first to accept the runner-up plate. He returned to congratulate Nadal within minutes, saying: “You deserved it. You played a fantastic final.”
After collecting the trophy from Laver, on the court named for the Australian great, Nadal put his arm around Federer.
“To receive this trophy from Rod Laver is a dream for me,” he said. “Rod, thanks very much. It was an amazing two weeks for me.”
Nadal seemed pained by Federer’s anguish.
“Roger, sorry for today. I really know how you feel right now,” Nadal said. “Remember, you’re a great champion, you’re one of the best in history. You’re going to improve on the 14 of Sampras.”
Nadal was in the final of a major on hard courts for the first time, having been knocked out in the semifinals of the Australian and U.S. Opens last year.
Even this time, he had to struggle to make the last weekend. He held off a fellow Spanish left-hander in Fernando Verdasco on Friday in five hours, 14 minutes – the longest match in the tournament’s history.
Federer went into the final on straight sets wins over No. 8 Juan Martin del Potro and No. 7 Andy Roddick after having to rally from two sets down to beat Tomas Berdych in the fourth round.
Nadal ranked this title high on his list of six majors.
“Very special, for me,” he said. “A dream win here, one Grand Slam on hard court. I worked very hard … all my life” to improve “outside of clay. Today was really lot of emotions on court. I was there with the best player I ever saw.”
Nadal said he’d be trying to break the record for most major titles, whoever holds it. He said he knows how tough it is to win every one.
“You have to be humble,” he said.
Federer, for his part, hasn’t given up on beating the Sampras record or of beating Nadal, on any surface.
“For sure,” he said. “I didn’t spend 4 1/2 hours out there (not) believing it.”
Federer was struggling with mononucleosis in Australia last year and was knocked out by eventual champion Novak Djokovic in the semifinals. He was hampered early in the season, but turned it around with a title at the U.S. Open.
Facing the No. 1 player for the first time in a major final – he held the top ranking for 237 consecutive weeks and Nadal was knocked out in the semifinals in New York in September – he seemed to be playing catch-up after dropping his opening service game.
He saved two championship points from 15-40 in the eighth game of the fifth set but sent a forehand long on the third match point.
Nadal flopped onto his back, then got up and raced to shake hands. The players put their arms around each other’s shoulders at the net as they walked off the court.
Although Federer actually won one more point (174-173), his serve let him down all too frequently. He connected on only 51 per cent of his first serves, and it seemed as if all his six double-faults came at critical times.
And as the pressure ratcheted up in the fifth set, it was Federer who wilted, not Nadal. Federer had six winners and 14 unforced errors in the set. Nadal had just two unforced errors and dropped only three points in four service games.
Federer converted only six of his 19 break-point chances; Nadal converted seven of 16.
It was the first Australian Open men’s final to go to five sets since Mats Wilander beat Pat Cash in 1988, the first at Melbourne.
Serena Williams had one of the shortest finals on the women’s side. She lifted her level in the final, routing Dinara Safina 6-0, 6-3 to win her fourth Australian title, 10th major and regain the No. 1 ranking.
“I actually forgot until the end when I was saying hi to my box. They’re like, ‘Hey, you’re No. 1.’ I was like, ‘Oh, yeah,”‘ she said.
Not that a number means everything.
“I always believe I’m the best, whether I’m No. 1 or 100,” she said. “Just having that extra bonus is pretty cool.”
After Melbourne’s hottest three-day heat wave on record, conditions were a relatively mild 79 degrees for the weekend night finals.
Williams also won the doubles with sister Venus in a doubles double for American families. Twins Bob and Mike Bryan won the men’s doubles and regained the No. 1 ranking.