For an all-Swiss affair, this was far from neutral. Such was the din that heralded Roger Federer's advance to a 28th major final, at the expense of his drained and emotional compatriot Stan Wawrinka, it was as if a corner of Melbourne Park had morphed into Basel-by-the-Yarra, a convention in honour of a 35-year-old with a dodgy adductor and the confounding ability to toy not just with his opponent but the passage of time itself.

Six tournaments: this was the sum total of Federer's competitive endeavour in 2016, en route to his stunning renaissance. About the only clue anybody had to his form this year was a pre-season video he had posted, uncharacteristically, of him scampering about the practice courts of Dubai with his usual panther-like grace. If this was a sign of confidence, it was exceedingly well-founded. Federer, defying the fatalism of his sceptics, has proved here that even the loftiest ceilings in sport - his 17 Grand Slam titles surpass Pete Sampras and Rafael Nadal by three - can be raised when mind and body co-operate.

His wife, Mirka, watched on wearing a pink sweater that bore the words 'Aveugle par amour', translated as 'Blinded by Love'. Everybody else on Rod Laver Arena was simply bedazzled by his brilliance, not least Wawrinka, whose lassoed single-handed backhands were returned with interest. Federer's pace, guile and foot movement would have flattered a player a decade his junior. So, too, would his endurance. As if to underline the restorative effects of a sabbatical, Federer has returned from his six-month absence with two five-set victories over top-five players in a week.

The longer this Australian Open lasts for Federer, the more he seems to show the type of pure, unclouded judgment that was once the bedrock of his dominance. He is playing with an insouciant abandon to recall the devilment of his Noughties pomp, when he could find the deftest angle at will. Grinning at the improbability of it all, he acknowledged that the approach was working. "I was talking to myself, saying, 'Just relax, man,'" he said, trying to explain how he strangled Wawrinka's momentum in the deciding set. "'Let it fly off your racquet and see what happens.' That's the mindset I need to have in the final. It has worked very well so far."


Just one man in the Open era can hold a candle to what Federer is doing in his supposed competitive dotage. Australia's Ken Rosewall was 39 when he reached the US Open final in 1974, and it is little wonder that the two of them have grown into such kindred spirits. Both scoffed at the very mention of retirement and both laid waste to premature reports of their demise. Indeed, the pair are so close that they recently milked a cow together in Gstaad.

On this court 12 months ago, Federer had lost the first two sets of his semi-final to Novak Djokovic in 45 minutes, his usual defences dismantled. No powers are ageless, and it seemed then as if his were attenuating. It would hardly have been a disgrace. Andy Roddick, let us not forget, was born just a few months after Federer and stepped away from the game aged 30. But where Roddick is enjoying the fruits of leisure on the golf course and in the commentary booth, Federer persists, even as a father-of-four, with the wisdom that he will be a long time retired. One half-expects, in any match of his at the sharp end of slam, to drink it all in, conscious that it could be his last, only for him to rise like Lazarus once more.

While Federer candidly claimed that he had surpassed all his own expectations in Melbourne, this wonderful tale should not be regarded as an aberration. After all, he has achieved the minimum of a semi-final appearance in each of the last five majors he has contested. Where Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic have both fallen this fortnight to adversaries ranked outside the top 50, Federer still rarely blinks when it matters most.

The one prize most coveted by his disciples, quite apart from major No 18, is a Sunday shoot-out with Nadal. Everything in these two weeks of non-stop nostalgia is telegraphed in that direction, as the greatest rivalry of them all heads towards a gloriously unexpected revival. They call the Melbourne Cup, across town at Flemington, the race that stops Australia. But the 35th chapter of Federer versus Nadal would do nothing less than stop the tennis world.