Their 35th meeting and their ninth major final had been billed as the match of the century.
The battle of the two great champions, two of the greatest players in the history of the sport, had gripped the imagination of everyone. Tennis fans, non-tennis fans, people who barely raise an eyebrow at professional sport – all of them were intrigued by the match-up of the 35-year-old and 30-year-old serial champions.
And neither man disappointed.
For three hours and 38 minutes, they did what they always do: Federer attacked, gliding around the court with blood in his eye as he looked for a weakness, an opportunity, to wound his foe.
Nadal pounded and pummelled and tried to break the Swiss physically.
Roger Federer is a Grand Slam champion once again
And in the end, Federer won 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3.
He had won his 18th major title in only the second tournament he had played since Wimbledon last year.
Before the match started, Federer topped the leaderboard in grand slam title wins but he had not beaten Nadal in a major final for a decade.
Nadal had 14 grand slam trophies, three less than the Swiss, but he had the 6-2 winning record over Federer in major finals.
Federer was the artist with a racket; Nadal was the muscular slugger. Picasso was taking on El Toro. And Picasso won.
For both men, simply getting to the final was beyond anything they could have imagined just a couple of months ago.
The sexiest tennis outfits of all time
Tue, July 12, 2016
As Nike recalls their new tennis dress for being to revealing, we take a look at the sexiest tennis outfits of all time.
1 of 19
The sexiest tennis outfits of all time
Nadal had to take four months off at the end of last year with a wrist injury and Federer had been side-lined for six months with a knee problem.
As he arrived in Melbourne, the Swiss thought a quarter-final would be a good result given how long he had been away from the courts.
Nadal was feeling a bit more optimistic than that but, even so, reaching the final after only a month back at work was still a pleasant surprise.
When the draw opened up following the early departures of Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, it was up to the young guns to make their move, to take advantage of the huge opportunity before them. And they couldn’t.
The old boys, the men who knew better than anyone what it takes to win a major championship, would not let them.
Nadal was stronger than Milos Raonic in the quarter-finals and more experienced and more brutal than Grigor Dimitrov in the semi-finals.
Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer played out an enthralling final
Federer outlasted Kei Nishikori, he dismissed Mischa Zverev, the man who had done for Murray, and he was bolder and braver than Stan Wawrinka in the semi-finals.
This was their moment; this was when Federer and Nadal could turn back the clock and show the world just what champions really look like.
But what made the night unique was the genuine respect between these two old friend, rivals and champions.
For 11 years they have been chasing each other around the globe for the biggest prizes in their sport, each has made the other cry with the result. Last night, they had another chance to do it all again and when it was over, Federer was ecstatic but he was also humble.
“In tennis we don’t have draws,” he said, “but if there were, I would have been happy to accept it and share this with Rafa.”
And he meant it, too. Nadal had brought the best from him, a best he did not know if he still had in him in the fifth set.
Roger Federer has now won 18 Grand Slam titles
But with belief, with trust in the hard work he had done when his knee started to heal, and with courage, he pushed and he pushed and finally he broke Nadal.
For a couple of sets, Federer was in his attacking pomp; for a couple of sets Nadal was his brutal, punishing self. Then, in the fifth set, Nadal took the lead. He broke in the first game and established a 3-1 advantage. The Federer fans could not bear to watch. Their man had lost so many times to Nadal; surely he could not turn this around.
But Federer did. A brief injury time out to have his right thigh massaged gave him a little more bounce in his stride and he laid into every Nadal service game.
He nicked the break back and then he started again.
He fought from the baseline, he attacked from the net – and on his fifth break point, he snapped the Nadal serve for a 5-3 lead.
The end, when it came, was almost an anti-climax.
A forehand on the sideline from Federer was challenged by Nadal.
The crowd waited. Federer paced. Nadal shrugged his shoulders – it was one last throw of the dice.
Hawk-Eye lurched into life: the ball was in. Federer had his 18th championship and history had been made.
Tennis was all the better for it.