Roger Federer's series of fortunate events: How it all fell into place

MELBOURNE, Australia -- The day after the ecstatic night before dawned with a blanket of gray clouds scattered over this exhausted city.

Did it really happen? Did Roger Federer, playing his best tennis at the end of an epic five-set match, really defeat Rafael Nadal? Did he actually win his 18th Grand Slam singles title at the age of 35?

Some four and a half years after what looked like the last hurrah at Wimbledon in 2012, did he somehow emerge as the 2017 Australian Open champion?

Yes, as improbable as it still seems, to all of the above.

"Six months off, first sanctioned event back, beating four top-10 players and an all-time great and rival in the final -- not even sure how to measure it," Paul Annacone, the coach who helped Federer achieve that last major win in 2012, wrote in an email from the Sydney airport. "Eighteen majors? I've been hearing the question of if Roger Federer can win another major since that '12 victory at Wimbledon.

"You just can't hold the 'greats' to mortal standards -- they do what we only dream about, and boundaries on their ability are merely a myth or fleeting suggestion -- same goes for Rafa."

After what ultimately may be considered the win of his life, Federer was moved to reminisce.

"It all started for me here," he said early Monday morning. "I played the qualies here in '99, the juniors in '98. Won my first match maybe against Michael Chang here back in 2000. I go way back. Always loved coming here.

"When you win down here, the journey home is not a problem. When you lose, it's just brutal. That's why I feel very fortunate tonight."

With the hindsight of a fabulous fortnight, it's now clear: This everlasting achievement, perhaps his finest moment among many, required a perfect storm of events. A fortunate sequence of events that was not always within Federer's control.

A brief accounting:

The long view: When he tore the meniscus in his left knee a year ago, in a hotel right here, running a bath for his twin daughters, Federer eventually opted for surgery. Even when he returned, it was never quite right. After losing to Milos Raonic in the semifinals at Wimbledon at less than his best, he followed doctor's orders and stepped away from tennis. But then Federer made the critical decision to skip the Olympics, the US Open and the year-end championships. The extra time allowed the knee to heal, and so too did Federer's zest for the sport. The unprecedented six-month break rejuvenated him, giving him a reservoir of resolve for the start of the 2017 season.

The draw: It was, quite frankly, a nightmare. Because of his low seeding, at No. 17, Federer was in line to play No. 10 seed Tomas Berdych in the third round, No. 5 Kei Nishikori in the fourth and No. 1 Andy Murray in the quarters. It looked like the group of death, but Federer was actually fortunate because he drew qualifiers for his first two matches. He dropped a set to old friend Jurgen Melzer in the opener and looked a little off against 20-year-old American Noah Rubin in the second. But in retrospect, those matches gave him time to get a feel for his uncertain body and the lightning-quick conditions at Melbourne Park.

The takedown I: Denis Istomin was ranked No. 119 coming in and shared a hotel room with his mother -- also his coach -- to save money. He got into the main draw only after winning an Asian wild-card playoff. Despite a 1-33 career record against top-10 players, Uzbekistan's Istomin stunned No. 2 seed Novak Djokovic in the second round.

The return: Federer scorched Berdych in the third round 6-2, 6-4, 6-4, surprising even himself. It was Federer at his most complete, a devastating glimpse of the form that made him the best player in the world. In the fourth, he needed five sets but prevailed over Nishikori.

The takedown II: Mischa Zverev is a decade older than little brother Alexander, and no one has predicted that he will one day be No. 1 in the world. But the older brother, age 29, is one of the best volleyers in the game -- and a survivor, it turns out. He took out John Isner in the second round, 9-7 in the fifth set, in one of the tournament's best matches. In the fourth, he knocked Murray out of the tournament, setting up a quarterfinal against Federer.

The throwback: In an aesthetically pleasing match that looked like something from the late 1960s, the two players (Zverev more than Federer) came to net more than 100 times. Federer won the quarterfinal in straight sets.

The near miss: Federer won the first two sets against Stan Wawrinka and then almost unraveled. He managed to beat his Swiss Davis Cup partner in five sets and, finally, the draw threw him a bone. That match was played last Thursday and meant that Federer would have two-plus days to recover from the adductor muscle tweak he suffered in the match, the one that had sent him on a very un-Federer-like trip to the trainer's room before the last set.

The favor: When Grigor Dimitrov first appeared, they called him Baby Fed. But for years, he was a chronic underachiever, seemingly more interested in the spoils of victory than victory itself. This year, it's been a different story. Dimitrov hadn't lost a match in 2017 when he encountered Nadal in their Friday semifinal -- and he almost made it into his first Grand Slam final. The match went five sets and required 4 hours, 56 minutes. It might have been the best match Dimitrov ever played. And it took an enormous amount of energy for Nadal to win.

The finish: Federer won two of the first three sets in the starry final that no one saw coming. But when Nadal won the fourth, all those damning head-to-head numbers came into play again. Federer had lost 23 of 34 matches to Nadal and six of eight major finals. But something marvelous happened in that fifth set. Actually, Federer happened -- in a way we haven't seen for years. He beat Nadal, his greatest rival, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3.

"I told myself to play free," Federer explained later. "You play the ball, you don't play the opponent. Be free in your head, be free in your shots, go for it. The brave will be rewarded here. I didn't want to go down just making shots, seeing forehands rain down on me from Rafa. I think it was the right decision at the right time.

"I kept on believing, like I did all match long today, that there was a possibility I could win this match. I think that's what made me play my best tennis at the very end of the match, which was actually surprising to me."

And, presumably, to most of the millions watching around the world.

Nadal later admitted, sort of, that the semifinals took a lot out of him.

"After five hours, is not easy to recover the way that I did," he said. "I feel that I was enough recovered. As I say before, just remain little bit of speed in moments. That's something normal.

"He probably remained a little bit more free points with my serve. That's what I needed in that moment, and I didn't have. Being honest, in these kind of matches, I won a lot of times against him. Today he beat me. Just congratulate him."

Annacone, a Tennis Channel analyst, isn't quite sure what it means, but he knows this: "Both Roger and Rafa have a reaffirmation of confidence and self-belief. So if they are healthy, don't be shocked to see both in the winner's circle again."