Roger Federer joins exclusive club of late, great athletic feats

Federer cemented himself as greatest of all time (1:51)

Patrick McEnroe and John McEnroe explain how Roger Federer was able to win the 2017 Australian Open. John adds that Federer's win makes him the greatest player of all time. (1:51)

MELBOURNE Australia -- It had been 4½ years since Roger Federer won a Grand Slam singles title.

But Sunday night at Rod Laver Arena, the 35-year-old summoned the strength and the will to defeat his greatest adversary, Rafael Nadal. It went a breathtaking five sets, and in the end, Federer took home the men's championship at this rousing, throwback Australian Open.

Federer, the oldest man to reach a major final in 43 years, became the fourth-oldest winner of a Grand Slam. The top three efforts belong to the same man, Aussie Ken Rosewall, who won three titles in the 1970s at ages 35, 36 and 37. He also made two 1974 finals, at Wimbledon and the US Open, at age 39.

That was a different era, of course. Tennis is more of a global sport today, and there is far more depth, particularly at the top of the game.

So, how does Federer's accomplishment stack up with the great, grand hurrahs, the late flourishes achieved by aging athletes in other sports?

Pretty darn well.

Tennis is a physically demanding one-on-one sport. In the semifinals, Federer was pushed to five sets by Stan Wawrinka and then another five by Nadal in the final. And don't forget his fourth-round victory over Kei Nishikori, another five-setter.

Men, in terms of elite tennis, typically tap out after the age of 29.

The great Pete Sampras, who is tied with Nadal at 14 majors, won only one after that birthday, the 2002 US Open -- and eventually retired. Federer, at 30, won Wimbledon in 2012 and then failed to win any of the successive 17 majors. Since turning 29, Nadal hasn't won a single Slam.

"Are you kidding me?" said longtime tennis writer Steve Flink, who will be enshrined later this year in the International Tennis Hall of Fame. "It's a phenomenal effort. And to do it against your rival, well, it's going to be a victory that he will cherish. It might turn out to be his favorite major."

Here's a handful of late, great performances that might be in the same conversation:

Jack Nicklaus

At the remarkable age of 46, the Golden Bear locked down his final major at the 1986 Masters. Amazingly, a dozen years later, he finished tied for sixth at 58.

Dara Torres

Torres would win a dozen Olympic medals in her career, but none sweeter than the last three. Against great odds, she made the 2008 U.S. Olympic team at age 41 to make her fifth team. In Beijing, she won silver medals in the 50-meter freestyle, the 4x100 medley relay and the 4x100 freestyle relay.

George Foreman

At the age of 45, Foreman defeated Michael Moorer in 1994 to become the oldest heavyweight champion ever. This came 20 years after collecting his first heavyweight championship belt.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

In the 1985 NBA Finals, the 38-year-old center was named MVP after leading the Los Angeles Lakers to the title over the Boston Celtics. He won the same honor at the age of 24 as a member of the Milwaukee Bucks.

Jimmy Connors

Who can forget his incredible run to the semifinals of the 1991 US Open? Connors was 39 and fell short when he lost to Jim Courier.