There are sporting champions, and then there is Roger Federer - a man who cannot help creating inspirational storylines.
Five years after his most recent Grand Slam title, Federer outlasted Stan Wawrinka in a sweaty-palmed semi-final. His five-set win carried us halfway to what would be the dream climax against old nemesis Rafael Nadal. Nadal still has to overcome Grigor Dimitrov before that reunion can come to pass. Yet whatever index you use - ranking, experience, major titles - Wawrinka presented a more intimidating challenge last night than Dimitrov will today.
Federer had to push through the pain, overcoming not only a four-year age difference but a strained adductor to claim a 7-5, 6-3, 1-6, 4-6, 6-3 victory. Will it all turn out to be another mirage? Federer fans have become used to having their hearts broken every time he nears a potential 18th Slam. His last three major finals have all ended in defeat to Novak Djokovic. But the man himself suggested that, despite his adductor issue, he is in better shape this time, thanks to his six-month sabbatical.
"What I've come to realise is when you don't feel well, when you have too many problems going on, you just won't beat top-10 players," said Federer. "At some point you reach a limit, and you just can't go beyond that. You can play them tight. You might win one of them. You just can't win back-to-back. You're just not feeling free enough, in your mind, in your body.
"That's where both Rafa and myself said, 'OK, enough of this already. Let's get back to 100 per cent, enjoy tennis again, enjoy the practice. Not just practice, treatment, practice, treatment, match, treatment'. All you're doing is fighting the fire. From that standpoint, the six months definitely gave me something in return. I didn't feel like I had to reorganise my life or my tennis. I just wanted to get healthy again."
Yesterday's semi-final was not a perfect match, in the sense that neither man played his very best tennis. Yet it was always compelling as a contrast of styles. Federer used his precision, his net skills and his creativity to keep Wawrinka off balance, and did it so well that he found himself two sets up and cruising. That was the cue for the first of the night's two injury time-outs, each of which shifted the momentum.
The first one belonged to Wawrinka, who seemed to be weeping as he left the court, but returned with his right knee taped up and a look of fierce intensity in his eyes. Immediately, he started to strike the ball more freely, using the weight of his thunderous groundstrokes to bully Federer. The contest was soon level at two sets apiece, and the momentum was only flowing one way.
So what did Federer do? He called his own medical time-out - an even longer one than the first, at fully eight minutes. Wawrinka was reduced to doing callisthenic exercises to try to keep warm, for it was already past 10pm. Such tactics are almost unheard of from Federer, who has now taken eight medical time-outs in 1,331 matches - or one every few seasons. But his timing, as ever, was impeccable.
"I think these injury time-outs are more mental than anything else," said Federer afterwards. "For the first time during a match you can actually talk to someone, even if it's just a physio. It maybe relaxed Stan, just to be able to talk about I don't know what. The same thing for me as well. You start chatting about it, how good or bad the leg is, how you hope it's going to turn around. That can leave a positive effect on you when you come back.
"I only did take the time-out because I thought, 'He took one already, maybe I can take one for a change', because I'm not a believer that we should be allowed to take a lot of time-outs. People know I don't abuse the system."
Time-outs or not, the result would surely have turned out differently if Wawrinka had converted either of the two break points he held early in that fifth set. On both points, he found fine strong returns that landed only a few inches from the baseline, but Federer handled them superbly, producing clutch tennis when he needed it. Now the pressure seemed to reverse on to Wawrinka, who donated his own serve in the sixth game via a double fault.
Federer needed only two more holds, and he duly delivered them. At 35, he is the oldest man to reach a Grand Slam final since Ken Rosewall, then 39, at the US Open in 1974. With the Williams sisters through to the women's final, this Australian Open will surely be remembered as the flashback Slam. (© Daily Telegraph, London)