The unquestioned No. 1, and four more things from the Aussie Open
Rafael Nadal is the undisputed No. 1 after his latest win over Roger Federer
Pete Sampras' record of 14 Slams is safe for another tournament fortnight
The Gang of Four exists, but Federer and Nadal are still a two-man show
Five things we learned from the Australian Open men's final while most of America slept:
1. Rafael Nadal is the world's undisputed No. 1. Running his second Melbourne Marathon in less than 48 hours, the Spanish southpaw proved indefatigable, catching up to Roger Federer's drop shots and chasing overhead smashes with head-down determination for the five-set win, 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-2.
By winning the first set 7-5, Nadal served notice that he was not going to shrink away, despite the five-hour, power-draining semifinal win over Fernando Verdasco days earlier. By the fifth set, Nadal's serve came up big, giving him his first hard-court Grand Slam title. Three-fourths of the way to the career Slam, Nadal needs only a bite out of the U.S. Open trophy to fill in any gaps on the resume.
2. Pete Sampras can sleep soundly, his record is safe for another Slam fortnight. The big moment finally got to Federer in the fifth set, and the three-time Australian Open champ failed to tie Sampras' record of 14 career Grand Slams.
If last year's Wimbledon loss to Nadal was a dethroning, then Federer's failure Down Under only deepened the difference between the world's top two players. No doubt Federer will have to shake his foil (he is now 2-5 against Nadal in Slam finals), but the road only gets tougher as the tour's route bends toward the clay of Paris. If Federer makes the finals in Roland Garros, he can expect to see the same forehand and backhand from Nadal. For now, Sampras can phone Nadal to thank him for delaying what once seemed the inevitable with Federer. Moreover, it may be the 22-year-old with six career Slams who one day surpasses both Sampras and Federer.
3. "God, this is killing me," were the words Federer used in a display of raw, uninhibited emotion on the trophy podium. Unable to conquer his nemesis, a tearful Federer needed a moment to collect himself in front of Rod Laver and a worshiping Australian crowd, but the sinking feeling will not go away when the tears dry. A friendly rival, Nadal offered his reassurance, turning to Federer and telling him that he will one day surpass Sampras. It was sportsmanship at its finest, but only a Federer win over Nadal in a Slam final will heal the wide-open wounds.
4. The Gang of Four exists, but Federer and Nadal are still a two-man show. Much was made of Andy Murray's ascendance leading into Melbourne, but the Scot failed to advance past the fourth round. Similarly, Novak Djokovic, who won last year's Aussie Open, failed to reach the semifinals. If looking to improve their games, they need only eye the consistency of Federer and Nadal. In continuing to raise their levels of play, especially against each other, Nadal's and Federer's excellence is what separates them from the pack.
5. The best point of the match, if not the championships, came in the fourth set. Whether it was Federer's impersonation of Willie Mays running down a lob over his head with his back to the net or Nadal twisting in mid-air to fend off Federer's overhead advances, there were a number of impressive shots Sunday morning. The best of the lot belonged to Nadal at 2-2 in the fourth set. To end an all-angles rally, Nadal punctuated the point with a line-painting forehand to gain advantage. With that, Nadal threw his arms in the air. A pose he would repeat a set later.