REPORTING FROMMELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - There wasn't much to choose between Roger Federer's elegant, airytennis -- silently played with all the angles calculated and covered --and Rafael Nadal's elemental tennis, the grunting, noisy, spinning,whooshing power of the lefty's two-handed backhand and muscled forehand.
Not until the fifth set.
That's when Nadal's relentless ferocity finally pushed Federer intodesperate shots and mistakes that came faster and faster until,finally, Nadal accepted one last Federer error, a long and aimlessforehand that sent Nadal to the ground in a heap of joy.
Nadal, the 22-year-old top-seeded and top-ranked Spaniard with acrooked grin but straight-ahead focus, won his first Australian Opentitle with a 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-2 over the second-seeded Federertoday on the Rod Laver Arena court.
After it was over, after he had been unable to counteract Nadal'sconstant ability to crunch the ball into all the corners, after he wasunable to rattle Nadal with either his clever lobs or sticky volleys,Federer wept while Nadal stood quietly aside, being respectful after hehad finished dismantling his opponent.
The 27-year-old from Switzerland, who was aiming to tie Pete Sampraswith 14 career Grand Slam tournament titles, tried to thank the RodLaver Arena crowd. But Federer could only say, "Hi guys. I've feltbetter. Thanks for the support. You guys are unbelievable. Maybe . . ."Then, as the crowd gasped, Federer had to step away from the microphoneas he began sobbing.
Nadal said he was honored to be on the court with Federer and calledhis beaten opponent the best ever. "I know he will win another," Nadalsaid.
Later, nearly two hours after the match was finished and Nadal hadendured drug testing, gotten treatment on a sore right hamstring andovercome a dizzy spell in the locker room, he said he understoodFederer's tears.
"I'm sorry it was a tough moment for Roger today," Nadal said. "I knowhow tough that must be. He's a great champion, he's for sure a veryimportant person for our sport. I was sorry for him but at the sametime I congratulate him for everything."
Federer explained his tears as a release of tension, an immediatereaction to the disappointment. "No time to take a cold shower,"Federer said. "But you can't go through life as a tennis player takingevery victory that's out there. If you're that close, that's what istough about it, but I have no regrets so it's all right."
Participating in the ceremony, maybe waiting for history that didn'thappen, were Laver and the four men he had beaten 40 years ago in eachof the major tournament championships -- Andres Gimeno, Ken Rosewall,John Newcombe and Tony Roche.
But it was the rambunctious 22-year-old from Mallorca, Spain, who wonhis sixth major tournament. Since last June, Nadal has won on the redclay of Roland Garros at the French Open; on the slippery grass ofWimbledon; and now the hot and sticky hard courts at Melbourne Park.
Though Sampras won his sixth major tournament in his 25th attempt andFederer in his 26th, Nadal has only played in his 20th. And Nadal isthe second-youngest man to have won so many Grand Slam titles. BjornBorg was one month past his 22nd birthday; Nadal is 22 years and7months old.
After the final point, Federer sat in his chair with his head down.Federer had lost for the 13th time in his 19 meetings against Nadal,and Laver consoled a downcast Federer, who usually keeps a tight lid onhis emotions.
This was the first Australian Open five-set final since 1988, when MatsWilander beat Australian Pat Cash, and there was hardly a moment whenNadal wasn't ahead.
He broke Federer's serve in the very first game of the four-hour,23-minute final. That was Nadal's announcement that he wasn't going tobe intimidated by Federer -- or tired out from his marathon five-set,five-hour, 14-minute semifinal win over Fernando Verdasco, whichstretched from Friday night into early Saturday morning and turned intothe longest Australian Open match in history.
From the beginning, both Federer and Nadal played high-quality tennis.
There were the sliding, gliding volleys of Federer, but then there werethe cavernous two-handed backhands hit by Nadal, the ones that took upall the space and left Federer no room to calculate where to unleashhis one-handed backhand, a stroke the strikes quicker than a snake'stongue, nothing more than a hiss and it's gone.
Would the 13-point game in the third set where Nadal saved three breakpoints and sent himself sailing into a tiebreak be the touchstone ofthe match? Or would it be the 21-point game in the fourth set whereFederer saved five break points to hold serve?
It turned out the match was an accumulation of Federer'suncharacteristically unsteady serving and Nadal's very characteristicenergy and topspin.
"I thought it was a good match," Federer said. "I had many chances, I missed some, and those cost me dearly."
Federer was speaking particularly of converting only six of 19break-point chances. He also took note of his 64 unforced errors andthe fact that he only made 52% of his first serves. "I couldn't get agrove on my serve, which was a pity," Federer said, "but that happens."