Before Sunday's Australian Open final, it seemed ludicrous to imagine that any match could be a worthy sequel to their last meeting in the
2008 Wimbledon final. But moments after the second consecutive five-set classic between the two ended 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-2 in Nadal's favor, making him the first Spanish player to win the event, the greater significance of the moment crystallized.
Three years have passed since Federer wept for joy on this very court when he received the champion's trophy from the legendary Rod Laver. On Sunday, Federer wept with disappointment at seeing another major slip away, leaving him still ringing Pete Sampras' doorbell, one short of the American's record of 14 Grand Slam titles.
"I think this was a tougher beat than Wimbledon," ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert said. "[Nadal] was completely out of gas, but he found a way to the finish line. Incredible. He has so much fight.
"Wimbledon was gut-wrenching, but [Federer] won the Olympic doubles and the U.S. Open and salvaged his year. This one stings more because it was the first of the year. It was going to re-energize him. Now he's lost five out of seven majors to his greatest rival."
Federer, 27, had three Slams in his pocket before his 23rd birthday. Nadal, who will turn 23 in June, already has twice that many, and if his body can withstand the spin-cycle pounding he puts it through, he appears capable of repeating the French Open-Wimbledon double in the future, a difficult feat he pulled off last year.
The younger man's first Slam title on hard court sharpens the picture in the collective viewfinder: Two men edging along the tightrope of their rivalry toward the inevitable tipping point where one starts to wobble and the other steps around him. It's not always a function of age, although that's clearly in the mix, and it doesn't always tip permanently. But this four-hour, 23-minute slugfest had the feel of a critical juncture.
"There's huge collateral damage to this match," commentator Justin Gimelstob said. "There's no barrier that hasn't been broken now. There's just no telling what [Nadal] can do if his body holds up."
Nadal said he, too, teared up late in the match as emotion washed through him, and he looked stricken when Federer broke down during the postmatch ceremony. Classy as ever, Nadal embraced the man viewed as invincible for so long. "Everything was very special,'' Nadal said. "Sorry was tough moment for Rog today. I know how tough must be there in important situation from him. But, you know, no, he's a great champion. He's the best. And he's, for sure, very important person for our sport, no?
"So sorry for him, but at the same time congratulate him for everything."
Federer's inconsistent first serve -- its accuracy dipped to 37 percent in the second set, which he somehow found a way to win -- and struggle to convert break points were the biggest differences between the two on paper, ultimately undermining his 71 winners. He double-faulted to end the third-set tiebreaker in anticlimactic fashion, and did it again to help set up the break point that put him behind 3-1 in the fifth set and broke his spirit. But this match was won by Nadal, not lost by Federer, by virtue of superior mental toughness, improbable digs on the run and whistling groundstrokes that bend both physics and belief.
No. 2 Federer and No. 1 Nadal have now met seven times in Grand Slam finals, tying the ancient record set by Bill Tilden and William Johnston after World War I. But this marked the first time Federer was the lower-ranked player and had to stride down the hallway toward the tunnel entrance first, feeling Nadal's eyes on his back.
Federer had won three of the previous five matches on hard court, but they'd never faced off in a hard-court Slam. Leading up to the match, speculation focused on whether Nadal could recover from his five-hour-plus sprint against Fernando Verdasco in the semifinal, especially because Federer had had an extra day of rest.
U.S. Davis Cup captain and ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe, who will guide his team against a Federer-led Swiss squad in next month's first-round encounter, was one of several observers who renewed the suggestion that Federer may need a full-time coach to help him solve the riddle Nadal poses.
McEnroe isn't nearly ready to say Federer is on the south side of his career, but he said his game plan and positioning were too predictable against Nadal, especially on return games.
"He succumbed to the pressure, for whatever reason," McEnroe said of Federer's loss of momentum in the fifth set. "Obviously, the guy's in his head. That's pretty clear at this point.
"The problem for him is that he's never had to really adjust to anything. He's always been so good and so talented, he could just rely on his game and kind of figure it out when he gets out there. All of a sudden, he's playing a guy he can't do that against. He doesn't get on top of the guy when he's down, and he thought he was going to go away physically."
Former Swedish great Mats Wilander was even more emphatic, saying the rivalry tipped to Nadal's advantage "a long time ago."
"After [last year's] French Open, you knew it was going to take a lot to beat Nadal on any surface, because of the mental block [Federer] has," Wilander said. "I mean, there's something wrong, for sure. It seems like it's time to get a coach. He needs to explore more avenues than he has."
Depleted by then-undiagnosed mononucleosis, Federer still made it to the semifinals here last year. He declared then that his excellence during the previous four seasons had created a "monster" of cumulative expectations that were weighing him down. That burden seemed to get lighter when he won the U.S. Open in the fall, but it has been replaced.
Nadal is the fire-breathing beast keeping Federer from the treasure he wants now, not some intangible standard.
"I'm still surprised how quickly the mood swings with the media, with the fans, with everybody," Federer said earlier in the tournament.
"You don't lose your edge that quickly. It's just not possible. I know I'm playing well. I feel good. I know sometimes you can always run into a player that's hot and you can lose."
Well, now he has. "Maybe I'll try again later," a gutted Federer told the crowd Sunday as he backed away from the microphone at center court, clutching the silver plate awarded to the tournament runner-up, temporarily unable to finish his remarks. The tearful comment is a promise. This proud and gracious player hasn't been pushed off the high wire by any means, but this match showed more than any other that he's going to have his hands full keeping his balance.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.