MELBOURNE, Australia—So here was Roger Federer, down a break in the fifth set in a Grand Slam final.
Across the net was his nemesis, Rafael Nadal, the left-handed Spaniard he hadn't been able to beat in a major final in almost a decade.
The 35-year-old father of four was back in his first tour-level tournament after six months off letting his injured left knee recover, and he hadn't won any of the big four events in tennis since Wimbledon in 2012.
Nadal was returning from injury, too, but somehow the pair had renewed the Roger-Rafa rivalry in a throwback Australian Open final that transcended sport.
At that moment, an 18th Grand Slam title didn't feature in Federer's thinking.
Don't play the player, he reminded himself, just play the ball. Attack the serve.
With that, Federer recovered the break and seized momentum in a roll of winning 10-straight points that helped propel him to a 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 win yesterday.
His fifth Australian title extended his buffer to four atop the list of all-time Grand Slam champions.
Nadal remained tied with Pete Sampras in second place with 14.
“For me, it's all about the comeback, about an epic match with Rafa again,” Federer said.
"That I can still do it at my age after not having won a 'slam' for almost five years.
“That's what I see,” he noted.
Federer had lost six of the previous eight Grand Slam finals he'd played against Nadal and was 11-23 in their career meetings.
His last win over Nadal in a major final was at Wimbledon in 2007.
“It remains for me the ultimate challenge to play against him," Federer said. ”It's super sweet because I haven't beaten him a Grand Slam final for a long time now.
“This one means a lot to me because he's caused me problems over the years.”
With big wins come big celebrations, Federer added.
“We're going to party like rock stars tonight,” he pledged.
By winning in Melbourne, where he first played in 2000 and where he kicked off his long reign at No. 1 with the title in 2004, he became the oldest man since Ken Rosewall in 1972 to win a slam.
After twice rallying from a set down, Nadal was a break up in the fifth but couldn't hang on to become the first man in the Open era to win each of the four majors twice.
Instead, Federer became the first man in the Open era to win three of the Grand Slam events at least five times (seven Wimbledon titles, five U.S. Opens, five Australian Opens, and one French Open).
“The magnitude of this match is going to feel different,” Federer noted.
"I can't compare this one with any other one except for maybe the French Open in '09.
“I waited for the French Open, I tried, I fought,” he recalled.
"I tried again and failed. Eventually I made it.
“This feels similar, yeah.”
The long-odds final—No. 9 against No. 17—unfolded after six-time champion Novak Djokovic was upset by No. 117-ranked Denis Istomin in the second round while top-ranked Andy Murray, a five-time losing finalist in Australia, went out in the fourth round to 50th-ranked Mischa Zverev.
Federer beat Zverev and then U.S. Open champion Stan Wawrinka in a five-set, all-Swiss semi-final.
That was the night before Nadal held off Grigor Dimitrov in an almost five-hour, five-set semi-final late Friday.
Federer's championship victory capped a remarkable weekend for 30-somethings after 35-year-old Serena Williams beat her older sister, Venus, in the women's final to capture her Open-era record 23rd Grand Slam title.