How the 2017 Australian Open Men's Final Was Won

If you are like me, you are spending the day after the final match of the 2017 Australian Open looking for ways to relive the startling 35th meeting of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. At the start of the tournament, the chances that Federer would win the title were just 3%; Nadal was an even greater underdog with just 1.5%. Seeing either of them in the final match at Rod Laver Arena wasn’t suppose to happen. Yet here we are the day after both men defied the odds and produced what is likely to be one of the most storied moments in tennis history.

The classic meeting of Federer and Nadal might have been a frustrating one for fans who have been following their meetings since 2004. With both players coming back from an injury-ridden 2016 season, the match was peppered with scrappiness and brilliance. Still, for two players who know each other’s playing style so well and bring such an unparalleled passion to the game, every new meeting at a Major is somehow a bit more special than the last.

Despite the lopsided record that hung over Federer’s head going into this match (11 to 23 overall, 0 for 3 at the Australian Open) the match felt extremely even throughout. It seemed like each set brought multiple momentum swings and there was more than one occasion when I thought a Federer comeback was out of the cards.

The highs and lows of the match made me curious to chart the point-by-point win probabilities of the men’s final. If we look at the progression of Federer’s chances throughout the match, what will it say about how much of a statistical tug-of-war the final was? Or how miraculous Federer’s eventual win?

The progress of the match shows that, both players began with nearly even chances for the win (Elo favoring Federer slightly at the start). The first and third set progressed almost identically, starting out with about 50-50 chances and rising to favor Federer by the final games. The second and fourth sets were also symmetrical but in an exactly opposite way, Nadal reversing all that Federer had achieved in the set before.

Looking at the patterns of the first thru fourth sets affirms the experience many of us had in watching. There were multiple occassions when we felt like we had seen this before. The deja vu of Federer getting a strong lead only to seem to lose control of the match, especially on service.

So what were the major turning points in the first four sets?

In Set 1, game 7 was the most pivotal. Federer gained the most in his win chances when he got to 15-30 on Nadal’s serve and created the first break opportunity in the match with the next point. Both of those points added 10 percentage points Federer’s win probability. And his ability to go one for one in break conversion in the first set seemed an early sign that this wasn’t going to be a repeat of the confidence crisis he had in the 2015 U.S. Open.

Set 2 reversed all of the hard work Federer made in the first set within 4 games. By the end of the fourth game, with Nadal up two breaks, Federer was down to a 50% chance for the win. Although he gained some of those odds back when he got back a break in the fifth game, losing the second set evened the odds going into the third.

The first game in Set 3 was one of the longest of the match. Federer proved he wasn’t out of the match when he fought off 3 break points over the 14-point game. Interestingly, Nadal would do the same in the fourth game to avoid going down a second break so early in the set. However, at that point, Federer was already above 75% win chances and was playing with the same confidence he had in the first.

Set 4 was the time warp set of the match. Having the advantage for the win, Federer repeated the lapse of the second set and was the first to get broken. That break in the fourth game he never recovered. Nadal faced little pressure on his serve in the set and a fifth set seemed a certainty by the fifth game.

The Fifth Set

After another controversial medical timeout before the fifth, Federer returned only to be broken in the first set. With Nadal looking like he could go another five years, few of us could have imagined at that point that this would become the most up-and-down set of the match. With his chances down to a doubtful 25%, Federer created 3 break point chances in the second game of the last set but failed to convert.

Those missed opportunities had to feel like nails in the coffin but an efficient service game brought back hope that Federer still had the form and will to pull off a miracle. Again, Federer got to a break point opportunity in Nadal’s next service game, the fourth game of the set. Once again Nadal denied that chance. But Federer responded by keeping Nadal at bay and holding serve easily in the following game.

It would be the sixth game that Federer would eventually capitalise on the opportunities he was consistently creating. Federer was in the best position at 30-40 but a forehand winner from Nadal put them on the deuce carousel that had gone against Federer so many times before. Although Federer’s backhand was expected to be the vulnerability Nadal would exploit, it was a beautiful backhand winner that gave Federer his second breakpoint chance of the match and the first of six in the set that he would convert.

After another strong service game from Federer in the 7th game, Federer put the pressure on Nadal. You could see the pressure Nadal was under by the depth of his groudstrokes. It seemed the more Federer moved toward the finish line, the shorter Nadal’s shot-making became. Still, Nadal is the master of defense and managed to fight off 4 of 5 break chances, going down only after Federer forced two forehand errors back-to-back.

Strangely, the challenge system would play a major role in the final game of the match. There were three challenges that came on championship points. Two in Federer’s favor, including the final challenge on Federer’s forehand winner that was more of a hail Mary from Nadal than anything else.

It was an odd coda to a surreal night that saw the 17th seed take his 18th Major title in his 100th match at the Australian Open. It was a milestone match for Federer and one that tennis fans are going to recall with fondness for years to come.