Nadal looming larger than ever

A wistful Roger Federer has to wait longer to match Pete Sampras' Grand Slam record. Lucas Dawson/Getty Images

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Three years ago, they were tears of joy. Roger Federer cried openly when Rod Laver presented him with the Australian Open trophy in 2006, leaving everyone watching in no doubt that his seventh Slam meant almost as much to him as his first.

Standing in the very same spot Sunday evening, Federer wept again for reasons that were very different -- yet the same. Neither time, nor success -- nor failure, in fact -- have dimmed the importance of the sport for Federer.

"I love this game. It means the world to me, so it hurts when you lose," he said after his 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-2 defeat to Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final. A win would have tied him with Pete Sampras for a record 14 Grand Slams.

Dramatic as the first four sets had been, and as surprising as the sudden end in the fifth set had been, the most emotional moment came after the match was over. Federer stepped up to the mike to make the runner-up speech, beginning gamely with, "Well, it's great for the sport."

Then he stopped and gulped, trying to fight back his disappointment. "Maybe I'll try later again," he said, finally. "God, it's killing me."

Even Nadal, in his moment of victory, was visibly moved. After receiving the trophy from Laver, the Spaniard stepped back to give his vanquished friend a hug.

Federer had to smile. "I don't want to have the last word, this guy deserves it," he told the crowd, picking up where he had left off. "So Rafa, congratulations. You played incredible, another fantastic final. You deserve it, man."

Nadal began his speech with a few comforting words. "First of all, Rog, sorry for today," he said. "I really know how you feel right now. It's really tough, but you are a great champion."

Though his face was still pale and withdrawn, Federer had composed himself by the time he spoke to reporters less than an hour after the match.

"In the first moment you're disappointed, you're shocked, you're sad, you know, then all of a sudden it overwhelms you," he explained. "The problem is you can't go in the locker room and just take it easy and take a cold shower. You can't. You're stuck out there. It's the worst feeling."

Federer's tears had touched even those sitting in Nadal's box. "I cried, too," said Nadal's coach and uncle, Toni Nadal, who broke down again when Spanish reporters later asked him about the moment.

He was standing in the underground corridors of the stadium, his nephew's replica trophy beside him and questions flooding in from a multilingual press corps. Many of the questions were about Federer.

"The greatest of all is Rod Laver, after that the best is Federer," Toni Nadal told French reporters. "Federer is better than Rafa, better than any player. Rafa is a good player, winning this trophy and five other [Slams]. But there is still a big gap."

As records go, that remains true -- 22-year-old Nadal now has six Slams, seven fewer than the 27-year-old Federer. On the court, however, any gap would appear to be firmly in Nadal's favor, with the Spaniard now having won their past six meetings.

Federer had his opportunities in Sunday's final, their first Grand Slam meeting on hard courts. He converted just six of 19 break points -- an 0-6 effort on break chances in the third set proving particularly costly. The Swiss also struggled on serve, managing to get in 52 percent of his first deliveries.

But it was Federer's sudden collapse in the fifth set that was most puzzling. Serving up 30-0 at 1-2, he produced four unforced errors to gift Nadal the break and struggled continually with his backhand for the rest of the match.

Toni Nadal, who had thought things would be "difficult" for his nephew after losing the fourth set, was as mystified as anyone.

"I am surprised that Federer in the fifth played not very good," he told ESPN.com. "I don't know what happened, maybe his concentration or the possibility to have 14 Grand Slams, I don't know. I am sorry for Roger."

Federer was in no mood to discuss details afterwards. "I definitely played a terrible fifth set, you know. I kind of handed it over to him."

His chase for the Grand Slam record will have to pause for at least a few months, and Nadal now looms as a larger obstacle than ever.

"I hope to get more chances to play him on hard courts," said Federer of Nadal in his French postmatch interview. "He has had a lot of chances to play me on clay and that's helped him on other surfaces and that's helped his confidence going into Wimbledon. But he has progressed a lot on hard courts. We saw that at the Olympics. That's why I was mad he wasn't the favorite [here]."

Federer, who initially stuttered and then bounced back to win the U.S. Open after losing last year's classic Wimbledon final to Nadal, feels he can rebound yet again.

He isn't even ruling out a possible challenge at the French Open, where he has lost in the final to Nadal the past three years -- including a 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 drubbing in 2008.

"I'll keep on trying," he said. "I'm happy I feel good again after all the problems I had last year. I feel that even after last year at Roland Garros I can have my chances on clay."

With such a solid record even in the past 12 months, Federer can indeed be confident that he will have more chances. The bigger question is how many he'll now be able to take, particularly when Nadal is standing on the other side of the net.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.