Why Roger Federer's record may never be eclipsed
It was another crowd-pleasing comment at the end of his speech, but it left a little room for doubt.
"I hope to see you next year, and if not then this was a wonderful run here and I cannot be more happy," he said.
More unlikely things have happened in tennis than a 35-year-old calling it a day at the end of a season – just look at the Tournament of Thirtysomethings where four greats took back control from younger interlopers to reach the singles finals at odds of 5,000-1.
It is more probable, however, that Federer did not want to jinx his future participation after a knee injury that saw him miss six months of 2016, having just won his first major for five years and worked so hard to make a comeback.
Yet, even if they were the words of a wary, weary mind, was this his last moment in the sun? If so, will his record ever be eclipsed? The answers it seems are probably 'yes' and 'no' respectively – and here's why.
Rival Rafa and the two-Slam swing
This was arguably the Swiss star's best chance of a major win this season, especially once Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic had been knocked out. The courts are significantly quicker than in recent years and the balls are smaller, supposedly to aid big-serving local hopefuls like Nick Kyrgios. It meant Federer was able, especially against Nadal, the ultimate baseliner, to keep the points relatively short, making tired 35-year-old limbs less of a problem. He is unlikely to be afforded this luxury at future tournaments, including Wimbledon, where the courts have been getting progressively slower, with his rivals more attuned to his game-plan as well.
Still, it would take a mad man to bet against Federer winning another title after the Miracle of Melbourne and it may not matter in the Grand Slam scheme of things anyway. That's because Federer knew the final in the Rod Laver Arena was a two-Slam swing: win and it would take his own total to 18 while depriving his belligerent opponent, who he had not beaten in a major for 10 years, of another at the same time.
Nadal, now four behind his great friend and enemy, must rely on his own brittle body to withstand years more of attritional play if he is to usurp Federer, whose longest period out of the game came not as the result of a on-court injury, but after twisting his knee when running a bath for his twin daughters. Wrist and knee problems have blighted Nadal for two years and moving into his thirties will not aide his cause either. The French Open, the next major, will at least provide him the chance to pick up another Grand Slam straight away and everyone else an opportunity to see if he has enough gas in the tank.
It will also bring the return of the top two ranked players – Murray and Djokovic – who will be refreshed after a hectic end of 2016 and start to the current season. But even if the Serb is back to his best after going off the boil after two years of dominance, he remains six majors behind Federer, while Andy Murray potentially has a few more big titles in him but has not been winning them for long enough.
Further back in the ranks, the lack of a younger player challenging the Big Four of the modern era is testament to the talent of Federer and the other trio, not an indictment on a lack of ability.
Grigor Dimitrov was meant to be the next cab off the rank. But the 25-year-old Bulgarian, even nicknamed 'Baby Fed' for his similar technique to the Swiss maestro, could not step out of the longest shadow in tennis despite his run to the semi-finals in Melbourne.
Alexander Zverev is another name spoken of in glowing terms and might have an outside chance of reaching Roger's record. The 19-year-old has been tipped as a future No 1 by many in the tennis fraternity and nearly ousted Nadal here. Yet while he has the potential to dominate the game in years to come, can he do it for a decade? His best at a major so far is the third round, Federer had already reached two quarter-finals by the time he turned 20.
Grit, guts and staying sharp
If anyone is to compete, it is not the grace on court that they will have to match, but the grit and guts. Nadal has never equalled the artistry of the Swiss but is at least his equal in the motivation stakes.
Federer, gracious in defeat or victory, alluded to this unheralded part of his game in his victory speech. "I know everybody says they work really hard – I did the same – I try not to shout about it," he said.
If anything, Federer, despite being the most decorated player of all time, had to work harder than anyone else in becoming the oldest man to win a major since a 37-year-old Ken Rosewall at the US Open 45 years ago. Despite winning everything there is to win, despite having two sets of twins to distract him at home, despite having the most dominant record of all, he was still hungry for more.
He is also a canny campaigner, not relying on his natural talent to see him through. Federer has evolved over the past few years in his bid to cling to the top of the game. He realises, at 35, he cannot compete with the younger athletes on tour. Not only has developed the SABR (Surprise Attack By Roger) to increase his time at the net and decrease the length of points, he has even been working on his backhand with coach Stefan Edberg.
So, while this Australian Open has shown that nothing can ever be ruled out in tennis, it seems Roger Federer’s record of major titles could, even without any further additions, be insurmountable. And if anyone does ever reach 19 titles, they will be a special talent indeed.
In the mean time there is no dispute over the tag of The Greatest – and we must enjoy him while we can.