Roger Federer is peerless but he and Rafael Nadal have made each other great | Kevin Mitchell

The Swiss player won a thrilling Australian Open final but would have been happy to accept a draw against another wonderful ambassador for tennis

Roger Federers claim to greatness has never been in question, not even in the five years since he won his 17th grand slam. However, his right to be regarded as peerless in the history of his sport was cemented beyond argument when he drew four majors clear of the 14 Rafael Nadal shares with Pete Sampras by defeating the Spaniard in an Australian Open final to rank alongside the best of the nine in which they have now contested a slam title.

This was the 100th match the Swiss has played in Melbourne, his fifth Australian Open triumph and, while it was only his third victory in 12 slam matches against Nadal, his first in 10 years, the third in a final and his 12th overall in 35 contests, he elicited rapturous applause from the packed stands when he insisted that he would have been happy to accept a draw with his most enduring rival.

For the rest of us, accepting such magnanimity ought to be tempered with the realisation that these wonderful players are ambassadors as much as champions. They invariably say what is expected of them. It was a generosity of spirit that Federer disguised brilliantly when burying Nadal in a fifth set that reached a pitch that hardly seemed possible even a few months ago and unlikely even earlier in the evening.

Almost a year to the day since he wrenched his knee while running a bath for one of his four children and playing in his first proper tournament since surgery after losing against Milos Raonic in the semi-finals at Wimbledon six months ago, the 35-year-old somehow made a legend crack. I cant believe it, Federer said. Its just incredible. I couldnt be happier. I went so much further than I thought I would. I would have said a great event would have been quarters. Today I just drove myself forward, serve and run: fight and see if you get lucky. Tonight I got lucky.

Lucky? Only the freakishly powerful Ivo Karlovic hit more than Federers 108 aces for the fortnight. Only Kei Nishikori bettered his 21 winning returns off serve. His total of 402 clean winners placed him fourth among the 128 original entrants. He went to the net 242 times in seven matches and won the point 175 times daring on a grand scale.

John McEnroes verdict was unequivocal and got to the core of it: Roger Federer is the greatest of all time. That sentiment was hard to challenge after watching Federer win 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 against an opponent who invariably had a hold on him in big matches. On maybe the night of his biggest win, given the context and the history, Federer broke those chains.

Just reaching the final was a victory for both of them and only partially facilitated by the early shock defeats of the two best players in the world, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic. On Sunday, the two who stood at the top of the mountain, deservedly so, had a combined age of a pensionable 65.

At the very instant Nadal five years younger at 30 served to start the match, just after 7.30pm local time with the sun drifting westward across the city rooftops and the temperature sliding slowly south, a distant tram bell tolled. We would not for whom for another three hours and 37 minutes.

To echo Hemingway (and Donne, from whom the American borrowed the title), the triumph belonged not only to the victor here but to all of tennis. Both finalists have enriched the game through their personal skills and their rivalry. No man is an island, said the poet and that holds true for champion athletes as well as doomed soldiers. They have made each other great.

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figcaption class=”caption” caption–img caption–media-atom caption caption–img” itemprop=”description”> Roger Federer defeats Rafael Nadal to win Australian Open title video highlights

As recently as October, when Federer went to Majorca to give Nadals academy a publicity boost, neither was up to wielding a racket in earnest. Wounded to the point where they might fleetingly have contemplated leaving the battlefield, they fought on. And here they were, generating thrills like they had done since Nadal won their first encounter, in the first round in Miami 13 years ago.

While it was slow to ignite, this was a final quick to burn as fiercely as any in recent memory. Whether through fear of physical collapse or inspired by their return to share the biggest stage here for the first time since 2009, both hit with vicious intent. Federers 73 winners may have been more pleasing on the eye but Nadal whose wrist injury robbed him of two months last season struck savagely, too. There were 184 rallies of fewer than four shots and 34 that went longer than nine 10 of those in an epic final set that lasted just over an hour and during which Nadal saved nine of 11 break points before succumbing to Federers artful torture.

For a quarter of an hour nothing much happened. The Spaniard held to love twice, as Federer explored his options at the net, and some ill-timed, techno music drifted in from a nearby festival to drown out the squawking of the seagulls. It was genteel, in a Melbourne sort of way. That would not last.

The last hour and a half provided the most drama, as is nearly always the case in these circumstances. The pre-match consensus was that Nadal would be more dangerous over five sets despite a much bigger workload during the fortnight because Federers admission that he had aggravated a groin strain in defeating Stan Wawrinka in five sets on Thursday was a reminder of his vulnerability.

Before they got into the trenches for the last time, Federer took a medical timeout as he did before getting the better of Wawrinka. Federer admitted then that he did it partly because his compatriot had taken a break earlier in the match and therefore felt justified in doing so. It worked again.

At 0-2 down, Federer had the trainer on to rub his right thigh but there was an entirely different sort of interlude when a ball kid had to clean up a deposit by a passing bird right on the service line as Nadal stepped up in the fourth game. Even seagulls are Federer fans.

His competitive juices ran sufficiently hot for him to complain quietly to the chair umpire, James Keothavong, about what he perceived to be slow serving by Nadal.

Federer began charging the net again; he won 29 of 40 visits, overall, nine of 12 in that desperate closer, as he broke back. Nadals timing went missing. The crowd went wild especially when he struck an 89mph second-serve ace to hold to love and lead. Superman is back, McEnroe said.

Nadal was up a break in the fifth set against Djokovic here in the 2012 final and blew it. He saved three break points in the seventh game but struck a post on the fourth. After three and a half hours, Federer served for the title.

His 20th ace gave him a second championship point. A forehand clipped the line. Nadal challenged. It was good. They embraced. Federer jumped about like a kid, his face a picture of ecstasy and the tears flowed again, as they had <a href=”” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>in defeat eight years ago.

What a ride they have given us.

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