January 28, 2018
Roger Federer tried so hard not to cry during his victory speech, but in the end it was all too much.
He stood there, lifting the trophy above his head, tears pouring down his cheeks, the standing ovation seemingly eternal.
What a storm he had to weather as Marin Cilic came back and broke the Federer serve at will for a time.
But Roger found a way, as he almost always does. His 6-2, 6-7 (5-7), 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 win was arguably the most historic of all, because of the plump, round and telling number it produces.
Twenty Grand Slam singles titles. Twenty! When you think of the physical demands of the modern men’s game, how deep he has had to dig on countless occasions; when you think that Federer is in his 37th year…
Well, it is hard for anyone to find the words or do true justice to this extraordinary sportsman’s crowning achievement.
Luckily, Federer spoke a few words of his own before he broke down. ‘I’m so happy it’s unbelievable. Winning is a dream come true, the fairytale continues, after the great year I had last year. It’s incredible.’
The great man was almost in tears at that point, but he battled on. ‘Congratulations Marin on making world number three, that’s a hell of an achievement, keep doing what you’re doing, you’re going to achieve more.’
To the fans, Federer had this to say: ‘You guys, you fill the stadiums, you make me nervous, you make me go out and practise. I’d just like to thank you for everything.’
Then Roger began to crumble. ‘My team, I love you guys, thank you…’ And that was it. The tears began to fall, the crowd rose, the applause, the smile…and more tears. It was one of sport’s most memorable moments. An outpouring of love for a very special human being.
On the point of victory, Federer had looked like a little boy, hardly believing his luck. It had been so much harder than anyone had foreseen after the first set.
Indeed after 24 minutes, it looked like we had no contest. But after one hour and 24 minutes, you knew that Roger Federer was in a big fight for that twentieth title.
He had saved a set point at 4-5 in the second – or rather Cilic had weakly netted a backhand. Roger saved another set point in the tie-break with a clever serve. But when Cilic served for the set at 6-5 in that breaker, there was no way he was going to miss a smash this time.
He had missed one early in the match and been broken. In fact, the first four games went by in the blink of an eye and the crowd began to groan, so one-sided was the tennis on offer.
Cilic hadn’t turned up, it seemed. He had done the one thing he knew he couldn’t do – get caught cold, allow himself to be beaten to the first punch. All the early aggression came from the sublime Federer. It looked like a simple victory procession under the roof.
People began to murmur that they had closed the roof to make it easier for the 36-year-old Federer, because there seemed to pressing reason why the players couldn’t have put up with the evening heat and humidity of the open air.
Everyone wanted a real match. And boy, did they get one. Cilic had begun to show a little form towards the end of that first set, but it was too little, too late.
What a different story we had in the second set. The huge global audience needn’t have worried, because Cilic showed up big time to entertain us after all.
Suddenly here was the man who had bossed Federer at the US Open in 2014, who had dismissed him in straight sets, whose game was complete. He knew he could do it. But would he again?
There could be no arguing against his right to take that second set. Cilic roared with confidence, he was firing on all cylinders. The match was perfectly poised. Would age finally begin to catch up with Federer?
Of course not. Roger doesn’t do time. He doesn’t get old, he takes everything early, and so it was for the key break in the third. A forehand winner on the half volley, a shot no one else can play quite like Federer, because no one else in tennis has the skill. Executed to perfection. Devastating in its grace and beauty.
After that, Roger raced away to take the set with ease. Now it was all about whether or not Cilic could hold serve in the opening game of the fourth, and start to stake his claim to parity in the match. By taking Federer all the way to five sets, perhaps he could finally exhaust the veteran warrior.
Marin started well enough, but then composure deserted him. Suddenly he faced a break point. Once more Federer swept him aside with nonchalant ease, a wide backhand return forcing Cilic to net under pressure. Roger progressed to 3-1 with a heaven-sent drop-shot, and the match looked over.
What happened next, no one could have predicted. Federer saw the finish line and wobbled, lost concentration and intensity, double-faulted, allowed himself to be broken.
Suddenly Cilic pounced, the quality of his movement changed completely, he looked positively predatory. He hunted down Federer in every rally, booming cross-court forehands supported by an improving backhand.
The champion didn’t win another game – blasted out of the fourth set 6-3 in 37 minutes. Either Federer had to find a way to disrupt the Cilic rhythm and momentum, or else he was going to lose, against all the predictions.
He faced break points yet again, to lose a third successive service game at the start of the fifth. Somehow Federer dug in a tried to ride out the storm. Many would have crumbled. Finally, after a delicate dual of cross-court backhands, Roger produced the most special one of all, to hold crucially.
Still Cilic poured on the aggression, though his mind was beginning to wonder. A double fault gave Federer hope. Then he only needed an instinctive return to put the Croat in trouble. Cilic tightened and fired his next forehand way too low. The crowd erupted. Federer had the vital break.
Cilic tried once more to break and was resisted. He could hold his own serve but suddenly he wasn’t making a mockery of Federer’s serve any more. Roger took just 66 seconds to polish off the four points he needed to go 4-1 ahead.
After a torrid time, the cool experience of Federer had allowed him to regain complete control. To do that against a younger man who had been on fire, and played some of the best tennis of the entire match, was extraordinary.
Cilic was heartbroken at the end. ‘It was an amazing journey and it could have been the best two weeks of my life. I had a slight chance at the beginning of the fifth but really Roger played a great fifth set.’
So now Federer had six Australian Open titles, equalling the record. But twenty Grand Slams sounds so much better. Will he make it twenty-one at Wimbledon 2018? On this kind of form, there is every chance.
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