Advantage Roger Federer in the chase for GOAT

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 -- He found a second wind. But from where? Roger Federer claimed he didn't exactly know. But when you're a man who has felt Rafael Nadal pressing down on you for 14 years now, battering you with shots, never stopping the hammering pressure until your hopes for victory have been grounded into dust, perhaps you pick up a few tricks along the way, even if just by osmosis. Maybe something elemental changes during all of those battles and a sort of transference takes place.

You decide that, like Nadal, you will not break. You cannot break. Because you can never expect Nadal will, either.

Sunday night in Melbourne, Federer, 35, and Nadal, 30, played a championship match at the Australian Open that was billed as the most important in men's tennis history. Legacies were on the line -- and a chance they would never advance this far again.

But the feeling after Federer outlasted Nadal 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 in a 3-hour, 38-minute classic was actually the opposite of finality: The chase for the greatest men's tennis player of all time didn't end here. It feels like it's "game on" between them again.

"Today, I just drove myself forward. I just told myself, 'Run for the ball. Serve and run, serve and run. Just run for the ball,'" Federer told Australia's Seven Network afterward, sounding more like Nadal than he did himself when asked how he rallied from a 3-1 final-set deficit for a victory that he called "a milestone in my career."

The level Nadal and Federer hit against each other was again that spectacular. This was a match that woke up the echoes. After a fallow period in which Federer and Nadal met only three times in the past three years, and not at all in 2016, it felt like this tournament -- and especially this sensational match -- slapped a defibrillator back on their careers and reinserted them into serious contention at any Slam they play going forward -- as long as they stay healthy.

Nobody knew how Nadal or Federer would return from the months-long absences they took in 2016 to heal from injuries. But the answer in Australia was they looked as good as they ever have.

"When I play like this," said Nadal, "good things can happen."

Added Federer: "Every match against Rafa is epic. But I did believe I had the game and the mental and physical capabilities to do this again. ... When I look back at the last years when I was fit -- 2015, '12, '11 -- I was really close [at the Slams]. I never lost belief."

Federer began the night with 17 majors. Nadal had 14.

But Federer hadn't won one since 2012, at Wimbledon, heading into Sunday's final. Now Nadal -- who still enjoys a massive 23-12 lead in their head-to-head meetings -- still hasn't won a major since 2014.

And yet, although Federer stretched the gap between them to four majors rather than allowing Nadal to halve his cushion to just two, remember this: Nadal has time on his side in his chase for GOAT. Rafa is five years younger.

The question before Sunday was whether Nadal's body would break down before he could chase down Federer. But Nadal moved and served here as well as he ever has. His forehand remains lethal, and his determination and willingness to suffer for every point is still unquestioned. But with former world No. 1 Carlos Moya in Nadal's camp now, urging him to play shorter matches and quit grinding himself on the practice court and in the gym, don't be surprised if Nadal ends up regarding this tournament as a springboard, not a setback.

Nadal has become an even better shot-maker in the years since he and Federer began their rivalry. But Sunday night, Federer stole a trick from Nadal's book by moving into a 3-all tie with the Spanish star in five-setters they've played.

It's was yet another thing that wasn't supposed to happen. But Federer spoke about how he and his team had consciously prepared for the kind of scenario he faced in the fifth set. He said they discussed how he needed to play to win. He needed to "let it fly" and not think about the importance of the match or Nadal's past mastery of him.

"I didn't want to go down just making shots and seeing forehands rained down on me by Rafa," Federer said. "I told myself play free. Be free in your head, be free in your shots. Just go for it.

"The brave will be rewarded here."

Federer was daring enough to do it. He remains good enough to execute it. And he indeed was rewarded.

Federer predicted it will take some time for this win to sink in because "the magnitude will feel different."

He may yet hold off Nadal for greatest of all time. But contrary to the predictions before the match, that's a debate that didn't end on this night. Nadal can say he has time and nearly all of the stats on his side. Federer can point to how he fattened his edge in major titles after this "super sweet" win.

Beyond that?

Laughing now, Federer added, "We're going to be partying like rock stars tonight, I can tell you that."