Victory again for Federer
At the age of 36, Roger Federer is still winning five-set battles. Still winning the game’s biggest prizes. Still growing his legacy.
On Sunday night, the 19-time Grand Slam champion turned 20, beating Marin Cilic 6-2, 6-7(5), 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 to defend his Australian Open title.
Having not dropped a set coming into the final, Federer certainly did not have things all his own way against Cilic, who fought admirably to take the Swiss the distance.
But in the end, the pull of history was too much for the Croatian to turn, and a record-equalling sixth Australian Open title was forthcoming for Federer when a Hawk-eye challenge went his way on match point.
Even after all these years, and all the trophies, the emotion of the moment still got to Federer, who was overcome with tears as his latest victory sank in.
"Winning is an absolute dream come true," he said during his trophy presentation. "The fairytale continues. After the great year I had last year, it’s incredible.”
“Of course I would like to thank Marin. Another great tournament. Congrats on world No.3, that’s a hell of an achievement.
“We had a wonderful time here in Australia. We arrived last year, we’re still here! It’s been a long journey, but very much worth while. You guys are unbelievable as a country and people. You make me nervous, go out and practice. I just want to thank you for everything.”
The tale of the tape
With the extreme heat in Melbourne leading to the Rod Laver Arena roof being closed, Cilic needed an authoritative start, given how Federer thrives indoors.
But the Croatian was visibly nervous from the off, smashing an overhead into the bottom of the net to lose his serve in the first game. With his serve and groundstrokes yet to arrive on Rod Laver Arena, the Croatian lost ten straight points en route to falling 3-0 behind.
Where Cilic had begun unsurely, Federer had opened up with supreme confidence, searing from the baseline and impregnable on serve as he cantered to a 4-0 lead.
The No.6 seed stopped the rot with a gutsy hold for 1-4, but was simply unable to make any inroads on the Federer serve, with the Swiss wrapping up the opener in just 24 minutes after losing just two points behind his own deliveries.
But Cilic dug in, perhaps fuelled by the painful memories of last year’s Wimbledon final, when blisters prevented him from truly competing. A quick service hold at the start of the second set was just the tonic after the first, and he followed it up by earning two break points.
They came and went, but the No.6 seed continued to battle, hanging on for dear life under serious pressure on serve. Federer generated break points at 1-1 and 2-2, but Cilic fended them off, and visibly grew in confidence as he did so.
Another challenge was posed at 4-4, but again Cilic rose to it, this time saving a break point with a courageous second serve ace.
As the missed opportunities began to pile up for Federer, the pendulum suddenly swung in Cilic’s favour. The Croatian got to set point at 5-4, but saw it go begging as he tentatively netted a backhand.
But the momentum shift was undeniable, as was the dip in Federer’s level from the first set. The pair needed a tie-break to split them, and despite going down a mini-break Cilic played confidently and aggressively, setting up two set points with a booming forehand before taking the second with an overhead smash that this time found the target.
Now the Croatian found himself in command, and had Federer on the ropes as he began dictating proceedings with front-foot tennis.
But any sort of let-off against Federer, even for just a few points, can prove terminal, and at 2-2 Cilic chucked in a poor service game. Federer swooped to take full advantage with a break, and his level suddenly rocketed up, most notably when he plucked a Cilic bullet off his toes and steered it onto the opposite tramline with a half-volley.
The third set quickly became a formality, and the Swiss appeared on the cusp of victory in the fourth when he lead 3-1.
But Federer’s first serve suddenly abandoned him, and Cilic took full advantage as he won the next five games in an extraordinary passage of play that set up a decider.
The Croatian had his opening, too, generating two break points in the first game of the fifth set, netting the first before Federer saved the second with a first serve.
It proved decisive. In the biggest moments, the champions stand tall, and an increasingly vocal Federer broke in the next game as Cilic’s strokes began to run astray.
There was still a bumpy ride ahead, with Federer not entirely comfortable on serve, but he pulled away from Cilic and inexorably toward Grand Slam title No.20.