On a warm, humid summer evening in Melbourne, a juicy storyline, a great rivalry, and two tennis gods all came together and culminated in a five-set war that fully confirmed a change atop the sport’s throne.
Here at Tennis Pulse, we have decided to vote on, and now countdown, the top 10 matches in the history of the Australian Open. With the sport’s first major of the season only days away, it seems appropriate to reflect on some of the tournament’s most special occasions.
In case you’ve missed it, here is our list so far:
So here we are at number 3: The 2009 Australian Open final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Catch the full match here:
For the Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal rivalry, the 2008 Wimbledon final will certainly always be seen as the turning point. After all, it was the match in which Nadal conquered Federer’s most sacred stronghold after two unsuccessful sieges in 2006 and 2007.
In the weeks following his epic win at the All-England Club, the Spaniard had gone on to supplant Federer as world number 1 and win the gold medal in the Beijing Olympics. But struggles, in a relative sense, followed for Nadal as he suffered a semifinal loss at the U.S. Open and then a lackluster autumn season including withdrawing from the Tennis Masters Cup.
Meanwhile, Federer had managed to somewhat recover from his difficult summer. Aside from the Wimbledon loss, he had also been completely beat down by Nadal in the final of Roland Garros and then suffered upset losses at the hands of Gilles Simon and Ivo Karlovic in Canada and Cincinnati respectively. The Swiss rallied his game and survived a number of difficult challenges en route to winning the U.S. Open, but later failed to advance from the round robin stage of the Masters Cup for the first time in his seven appearances at the event.
As tennis moved into 2009, there was speculation on who should be considered the favorite for the season’s first major. Nadal was the new number one, but had never reached the final of a grand slam on hardcourts. Federer won in New York, but had looked vulnerable otherwise throughout 2008. Meanwhile, there was also plenty of support for Novak Djokovic, the defending champion, and Andy Murray, who had ridden a strong second half of 2008 up to number 4 in the rankings.
Indeed this was a strange point in tennis history. After years of utter dominance by Roger Federer, it was clear that the torch was being passed with Nadal the leading candidate to seize it.
Both the Swiss Maestro and the Spanish Bull came out of the gates with little difficulty. Each advanced to the fourth round without dropping a set. Nadal continued to dominate all the way to the semifinals while Federer was the first to have to buckle down in overcoming a two sets to love deficit to Tomas Berdych in the fourth round. In the quarters and semis though, Federer recovered his form and looked at an imperious level heading into the final. Meanwhile, Nadal had to survive an epic war with fellow-Spaniard Fernando Verdasco in a five-set semifinal that lasted over five hours. But survive he did.
In reaching his first major final on a hardcourt, Nadal set himself up to threaten Federer’s final fortress. The Spaniard had taken nearly everything from his great rival in the last year, but the Swiss was still seen as the stronger hardcourt player. In total, Federer had won three Australian Open titles, eight of his 13 majors on hardcourts, and his more offensive game was seen as the better fit for the faster surface. The Swiss had never lost a major final on hardcourts and also had the distinct advantage of an extra day to recover from the semifinals while also having had the easier match.
But this was Rafael Nadal in his absolute prime. For 14 years it’s been apparent that the man from Mallorca is capable of inhuman feats and this night would go down as one of his most impressive.
The opening game of the final was far from a preview of things to come. It started awkwardly, with Federer committing a double fault and three unforced errors, including an ugly forehand miss on break point. It was a strange sight to see and not what many had expected, but it didn’t take long for things to get better. Much better.
The level of play picked up almost immediately in the next game as, at 15-all, the first of many stirring baseline rallies ended with Federer firing a forehand winner crosscourt.
The Swiss earned his first break point at 30-40, but Nadal fought back to deuce. Federer eventually earned another opportunity, but then committed an error off the backhand side. After a Nadal error, the Swiss’ third chance proved to the charm as he ended the 10-minute game with a clean forehand winner up the line.
The men traded holds until Nadal served at 2-3. At 30-all, Federer struck another winner to produce his fourth break chance of the evening. The Swiss then pulled the trigger on a Nadal second serve, punishing the Spaniard’s tendency to simply spin a slider out wide by running around his backhand and firing a forehand winner to take the lead.
Having already broken Nadal’s serve more times in the first set than he did throughout the entire Wimbledon final, Federer had to be feeling good about his chances. But the Swiss was unable to consolidate his advantage in the next game as Nadal pulled out some vintage movement and shot-making. At 30-15, Federer approached the net ahead in the rally, but Nadal dipped a low slice backhand. Federer’s volley into the open court was still good enough to have beaten most players, but the Spaniard ran it down and flicked a half-volley forehand pass winner on the dead run.
The world number 1 followed up that performance with a running backhand winner to earn an opportunity to break back. Moments later, Federer double faulted to surrender his advantage.
Both men once again exchanged holds of serve until 5-all when Nadal earned the first point after Federer missed a volley. The Spaniard eventually earned double break point on a wild forehand error from the Swiss and then seized his third break of the Federer serve in the set by firing a forehand passing shot for a clean winner up the line.
Nadal went on to serve out the set with relative ease, finishing things with another forehand winner after more immaculate defense.
“It was a lot of gifting by Roger. It’s the errors,” ESPN commentator Brad Gilbert said. “That’s the pressure of playing Rafa.”
Swiss strikes back
Proceedings calmed down a bit in the early stages of the second set as the players traded relatively routine holds in the first three games.
But in the fourth, it was Federer’s turn to apply the pressure. The players produced a true highlight of a point at 40-30 with a number of stunning, sharply-angled strikes eventually ending in a Federer forehand winner.
The Swiss earned the first break chance of the second set with a trademark inside-out forehand, but Nadal erased the opportunity with an ace up the middle and eventually held after Federer missed a pair of forehands.
At 2-2, it was Nadal’s turn to up the ante. The Spaniard crushed a pair of backhand winners, his eighth and ninth of the match already, to reach 15-30. An eventual forehand error by Federer granted Nadal his first break point of the set and a deep return from Nadal clipped the baseline causing Federer to mishit long. Nadal had the lead and his fourth break of the normally potent Federer serve.
“It’s a set and break right now, but it feels like a lot more,” ESPN commentator Patrick McEnroe said. “It feels like Federer is absolutely against the wall right now.”
But while he may have gotten Federer on the ropes, Nadal was quick to let him off. The Spaniard committed a routine forehand error to hand over the first point of the ensuing game and later double-faulted. From 30-all, Rafa dumped an easy forehand into the net and on break point he missed again.
With his first-serve percentage having now dipped under 50 for the match thus far, Federer had to rely on his forehand and footwork. Those two legendary aspects of his game were up to the challenge, with a pair of winners earning the Swiss game point. He then held after a missed return from the Spaniard.
With Nadal serving at 3-4, Federer once again looked to be the aggressor. He approached the net on the opening point of the game but his first volley was not good enough and allowed Nadal to fire a backhand passing shot winner up the line. Undaunted, the Swiss shot a backhand winner of his own on the next point and then earned the lead in the game after a Nadal error. From there, Federer earned double break point with a trademark forehand winner up the line to finish a stirring rally.
But Nadal fended off both chances with a strong forehand and then a service winner. Federer earned another chance with a strong inside-out forehand, but the Spaniard was again up to the task, this time in the form of an ace up the middle. Nadal eventually earned a chance to hold, but missed on a backhand. The Swiss earned a fifth break chance in the game with a strong backhand that a scrambling Nadal could only hit long and then finally earned the lead after a bold approach to the net and an uncharacteristic passing shot miss by the Spaniard.
Serving for the second set, Federer found enough of his previously absent serving form. A service winner opened the game and the Swiss followed up with a forehand winner to earn 30-15. Nadal missed a backhand to hand Federer two set points. Federer needed only one as Nadal missed a return to level the match.
With the top-two players in the world now playing best-of-three, Nadal reasserted himself with a hold to 30 to open the set. Federer responded with a hold of his own.
In the third game, Federer pressured Nadal’s serve to the tune of a pair of deuces, but was unable to reach a break point opportunity. The Spaniard went on to hold after a wild forehand error from the other side of the net.
The early stages of the set continued to go in relatively routine fashion with both men trading routine holds until 2-3 when Nadal earned the first break chance of the set. Federer quickly swiped it away with a forehand winner and then reached game point after a long rally that ended with Nadal hitting long. The Swiss then held for 3-3 after another error from the Spaniard.
Things appeared to be looking advantage-Federer as the third set wore on, with Nadal calling the trainer and appearing to have tired legs. But a common narrative for the Federer-Nadal rivalry has been the Swiss’ inability to capitalize on break points, despite the Spaniard having a relatively weak delivery. That aspect of the matchup reared its head in a huge way in the latter stages of a tension-filled third set.
At 4-4 Federer earned triple-break point after three Nadal misses, but the Spaniard dug deep and fired a pair of winners followed by Federer missing a return to get back to deuce. Nadal earned a game point after Federer missed a backhand, but another stirring rally returned the score to deuce. Nadal fired an ace to get another chance to hold and this time he converted thanks to another Federer error.
Federer held with relative ease for 5-5 and immediately pressured Nadal’s service game again with a forehand winner to earn the opening point. The Swiss eventually earned double break point after another strong crosscourt forehand, but Nadal was once again up to the challenge. Federer missed on a desperate backhand passing shot attempt and then fired a forehand long. Nadal conceded a third break chance after missing a backhand but launched a forehand winner to get back to deuce again. Eventually, Nadal held after a forehand error from Federer.
Now, after fending off half a dozen break points in his last two service games, it was Nadal’s turn to turn up the pressure. Despite Federer racing out to a 30-love lead at 5-6, the Spaniard would win three points in a row to suddenly earn a set point. Federer erased the opportunity with a service winner and then earned a game point after a grueling rally that ended with Nadal launching a forehand just wide. Federer squandered two opportunities to finish the game, but earned a third after a flick backhand winner crosscourt. This time, the Swiss claimed the game with another ace.
After both men missed opportunities to grab crucial breaks throughout the set, the third came down to a tiebreak. The situation seemed to favor Federer, who had won the last five tiebreaks that the pair had contested. Nadal handed an immediate minibreak over after missing an easy forehand, but Federer returned the favor with a bad error of his own. The Swiss recovered by firing a drive volley winner to get to 2-1 but made two errors on the next two points. Federer made a difficult volley to earn 3-3, but after the change of ends, it was the Spaniard’s turn to be ahead a minibreak after a loose forehand miss by his opponent. Nadal earned 5-3 with a forehand winner and then consolidated his minibreak advantage with an incredible backhand stab volley.
Facing three set points, Federer fell at the first hurdle, double faulting and surrendering a set in which he appeared to be the stronger player.
Despite the disappointing finish to the third set just minutes earlier, Federer managed to recover and hold to love to open the fourth. He then flicked a backhand pass to get ahead in Nadal’s first service game of the frame. The Spaniard handed over two break point opportunities with an error and his opponent was happy to capitalize on the first courtesy of a forehand winner.
But despite being down an early break, Nadal was certainly not ready to surrender the idea of a fifth set. He battled to 30-all on Federer’s next service game and then produced a signature Rafa moment by sprinting all the way across the court to fire a forehand down the line that Federer could not handle. The Spaniard followed that effort up with a passing shot winner that evoked immense frustration from Federer for having surrendered his advantage so quickly.
Nadal recovered from love-30 in his next service game with four straight points to hold and then reached double break point after ripping a forehand pass winner. With a two sets to one lead and 15-40, Nadal could see the finish line.
But this time it was Federer’s turn to step up while facing break points. The Swiss fired a service winner and then a brave backhand winner down the line was punctuated by a scream of “Allez.” Nadal committed an error to give Federer a game point, but earned another deuce with immaculate defense followed by a backhand smash volley that the Swiss got a racquet on, but could not handle. Federer earned another game point with a dropshot winner, but then committed another double fault. Facing another break point after missing a backhand, Federer used the dropshot again and a racing Nadal just barely missed a backhand winner.
In the game’s fourth deuce, the pair produced the point of the tournament. Both players scrambled side to side with incredible defense and transition tennis. Eventually, after an incredible slice forehand kept him in the rally, Federer launched an inside-out forehand. An exhausted Nadal lunged to his left and somehow managed to redirect his own forehand up the line for a winner. The crowd exploded and the Spaniard raised his arms in triumph.
Federer recovered quickly and erased the ensuing break point with an ace, but then offered up another with an error. A forehand winner created the game’s sixth deuce and the Swiss followed that with a backhand strike. Eventually, after 20 points and 7 deuces, Federer held with a drop volley.
In Nadal’s next service game, Federer quickly inverted the pressure. The Swiss reached 15-30 after an error from the Spaniard and went on to earn a break point after another miss. At 30-40, Nadal was unable to duplicate his performance in fending off break points from the third set. Federer launched a forehand up the line that beat Nadal for pace and took a 4-2 lead in the fourth.
Unlike earlier in the set, Federer was able to consolidate his advantage this time. He raced through a routine hold to reach 5-2 and, two games later, held with relative ease once again to send the dream final into a fifth set.
For all of his toughness and resilience in the fourth set, there was little left of Roger Federer in the fifth.
Against all odds, Nadal, the man who had played the longest match in Australian Open history (at the time) less than 48-hours earlier and had appeared physically spent in the third, was the one with enough energy reserves as the match neared the four hour mark.
The Spaniard held to 15 to open the fifth set. Federer then recovered from a pair of errors in his own opening service game to hold to 30 and level the score at 1-all. Nadal raced through another easy hold and the pressure swung back to Federer.
From 30-15, Federer committed a double fault and then a shanked backhand miss to hand the first break point of the fifth to the Spaniard. Nadal managed to direct his backhand return into the backhand corner of Federer and then looped a high forehand on his next shot the likes of which the Swiss could only bury into the net.
With Nadal now leading in the fifth, Federer’s belief appeared to finally fail him. After another backhand error, ESPN commentator Darren Cahill remarked on the dip in form from the Swiss.
“He was really pumped up in the fourth set and here in the fifth he’s been really flat,” Cahill said.
Another Federer error gave Nadal 30-love and he eventually held to 30. The pair then traded routine, love service games leaving the Spaniard suddenly only one game away from the title.
Stepping to the line, Federer was looking to at least force his opponent to serve out such a big occasion, but the Swiss dug a quick love-30 hole with a missed volley and a double fault. Nadal then missed a backhand, but earned two championship points after another Federer error. The Swiss held off the first two chances, but a third would soon arrive.
On championship point, Nadal’s dogged defense reared its head one more time for the evening. With Federer pummeling away from the baseline, the Spaniard not only ran down every ball, but also kept his responses deep enough to remain in the rally. Finally, after nearly four-and-a-half hours, in a picture nearly identical to the finish of the Wimbledon final, it was Federer missing a forehand and Nadal flopping onto his back in celebration.
With the victory, Nadal became the first Spaniard to win the Australian Open and increased his major title tally to six.
But for as memorable as the match was, it was the aftermath that might have generated even more buzz.
With Federer stepping to the microphone during the trophy ceremony, the Swiss Maestro suffered a complete emotional breakdown, openly weeping and eventually having to step away. In one of the most memorable moments of their special rivalry, after receiving his own trophy, Nadal walked over to his crestfallen opponent and provided a warm, comforting embrace.
The overall lackluster finish to the match in the fifth set provided a surprisingly mediocre finish to an otherwise marvelous match and, coincidentally, ended up appearing as a reciprocation of their eventual clash in 2017 when the level of play was average until the phenomenal final set.
But regardless of how it ended, the 2009 Australian Open final had enough outlandish moments and riveting rallies to fully earn a place among the all-time contests at the tournament. Perhaps even more importantly, the match seemed to put full punctuation on the sentence that had been primarily written the previous season:
The era of Federer’s dominance was finished.