There Are Legends, There Are Other Legends, And Then There Is Roger Federer

Roger Federer Australian Open 2018

Photo courtesy of misionescuatro.com

Roger Federer (2) defeated Marin Cilic (6)  6-2, 6-7 (5),  6-3, 3-6, 6-1. 

Roger Federer’s five set win over Marin Cilic in the 2018 Australian Open men’s singles final on the Rod Laver Arena played under the admiring eyes of the legend himself was the Swiss’ record tying 6th AO title, his record 20th slam, becoming the first man to reach that number, and his first defense of a slam since the 2008 US Open. 

These milestones were achieved in Federer’s favorite conditions, indoors, after the AO made the controversial decision to close the roof for the final. While it made sense to some degrees, namely the mid 30s the court thermometers read, it was disappointing, even baffling, for some Open tennis fans who wanted to see the players not just deal with each other, arguably the toughest medium fast court opponent they could meet in the final, but with the wind and the heat, too, as they had done all fortnight, to test in the final match their championship mettle versus the very best which tennis and nature had to throw at them.

Cilic was a little thrown by the roof closure, himself. The first time AO finalist later revealed in his post match press conference that he was not asked about the roof closing:

 Well, no, they didn’t ask me. They just came to me to tell me that they are thinking about decision, and they going to make the final decision just around 7 p.m., just slightly before the match. I didn’t mind to have roof closed, but it was a huge difference in temperature from having outside 38, then when you came in, it was like 23, 4, I don’t know. It was way cooler than I expected.

Cilic would have been more favored by indoor conditions if he had, as Federer did, practiced in them before the match, but the sixth seed, not expecting to play the final indoors, decided instead to practice outside on his usual court. That decision backfired, along with another one, not bringing on court rackets strung at the right tension for such cooler conditions, and an uncomfortable and vulnerable Cilic was trailing the greatest player indoors ever 1-4 in just short of 20 minutes.

Federer, who said he would not have minded playing outside, that the heat, which he had no problem with, might have slowed down Cilic, seemed as cool as ever in his 30th slam final, his seventh on Rod Laver, everything falling into place for him, taking the first set 6-2.

Fears of a fourth slam final blowout in a row, Cilic’s loss to Federer at Wimbledon one of them, were soon allayed as Cilic fought back to win a long service game in the third game of the second and then went on to take the set to a tiebreak, won 7 points to 5, one which Cilic edged with some typically aggressive and risky tennis, the only kind that was going to win him the match, the indoor conditions now playing into his hands, helping him to keep the ball low over the net and hitting the lines.

A match on his hands, Federer got a grip on his nerves, and his serve, serving at 81%, up from 57 in the 2nd , to take the third set 6-3.

Federer broke Cilic and led 3-2 in the fourth set, and a four set win which always looked on the cards was now just three service holds away. But it is not everyday you get to play for your 20th slam, and neither is it everyday you get to play your first Australian Open final, the chance to redeem yourself for the disappointment of losing your last slam final, and as fast as Cilic could swing at a forehand, Federer’s nerves and Cilic’s desire collided- Federer’s service percentage dropped to 36 and his already shaky ground game was now a tremor, while Cilic’s all round performance peaked and the sixth seed went on a tear to win  four games in a row to win the fourth set 6-3 and force a decider.

In the opening game of the fifth, Cilic, who had never won a close match in a big final before, looked like he might be about to put himself in a position to break through when he held two break points in the opening Federer service game. The Croatian had his chances, too, but lacked the experience to quite know what to do with them, the huge forehand that had gotten him into this position now proving to be his undoing when he went for too much on the return on the first break point, but there was little he could do on the second, a service winner from Federer shutting him out, and the Swiss went on to hold serve with an angled backhand cross court winner that painted the line.

Federer then completed his escape from what could have been another collapse on Rod Laver with the man himself looking on, and did not drop another game, the serve the shot that got Federer through this one, Federer getting it back up to familiar territory, first serve percentage wise, of 61 %, one percent below his 12 month and career average, and while it was 10 % lower than Cilic’s, Federer had the higher winning percentages on both his first and second serve, with 71 and 73 respectively compared to Cilic’s 50 and 40, and a match that looked set to be about small margins now become about large ones as Federer put some distance between himself and his rival. There had been some shot making of the highest order here and there, one Federer forehand pickup while running backwards especially awe-inspiring, but on a medium fast court indoors, between two aggressive players struggling for consistency, the serve is going to be the decider and Federer’s held firm in the fifth while Cilic held just once and was broken twice.

Serving at 5-1, Federer closed out the match, hitting a service winner on championship point, but his #RF20 moment had to wait while Cilic challenged, and Federer who had already waited enough that day to win slam 20 had to wait just a little bit longer, a wait Hawkeye brought to an end when it revealed the Swiss had won championship point, and Federer could finally celebrate, raising his arms, and the eyes welling up, the dam that would eventually flood letting flow its first trickles.

In the trophy ceremony, the Swiss said he was glad “it” was all over, “it” no doubt the achievement of winning 20 slams, becoming the first man to do so. In his post match conference, the champion said:

All day I was thinking, How would I feel if I won it, how would I feel if I lost it? I’m so close, yet so far. I think I was going through the whole match like this.

It did not help that he faced an at times zoning rival like Cilic whose great play late in the fourth set and early in the fifth had Federer thinking history, which he had chased to within three service holds, may have to wait, which it might not, with time on its back, do. But though Cilic’s threatening play provided no end of stress for Federer and his fans, it did deliver the kind of drama which may have been tough on the nails but which made such a historic win the nail-biter we deserved.

With so much on the line and that line now crossed, all the tension finally relieved itself in Federer’ trophy speech. Federer thanked Cilic, the crowd, everyone from the volunteers to the fans to the legends who were present to his team, all before a Rod Laver filming the Champion on his smart phone:

Rocket, Rod Laver, nice to see you again, Ashley Cooper, thanks for presenting the trophy, it’s an absolute honor to be here again, and all the other legends, in the commentary booth, and around the stadium. It’s always a celebration of tennis when the tournament comes to an end, I just want to thank all the people who made this night so special for both players and all the fans out here tonight. You guys, you fill the stadiums, you make me nervous, you make me go out and practice, and I’d just like to thank you for everything. It wouldn’t be the same without you guys, thank you. Marin’s team, as well, you work hard, all the best. This is hard. And my team, I love you guys, thank you.

The tears poured and not just from Federer but from many a spectator, too. What sports lover would not be moved by a man who could have walked away years back a legend, could have been commentating, presenting the trophy himself to a new champion or snapping pics on the other side of the smartphone, but is, instead, with all the nerves eating away inside of him, still out there giving us everything, his gifts, his blood, his sweat, his tears, his love of the game, and taking us with him along for the ride, deeper into tennis history which he has now written into a fairy tale, winning his 20th slam, his 6th Australian Open title, a win which saw him defending his first slam since the US Open 2008, nearly a decade ago.

Federer has spent some of his time since that New York victory in the tennis legend wilderness, some of it in limbo, some back scaling the heights, some in the Hades of injury and surgery, and now, his 20th slam trophy won, his third in a year, he is back, seated in the most ornate throne on Olympus, with legends, indeed, tennis Gods even, and all the other legends, too, gazing up his way at the legend himself, him, Roger Federer, holding dear his 20th slam, and counting.

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Christian Deverille

Christian Deverille is a tennis writer with a diploma in Freelance Sports Writing from the London School of Journalism. He loves all things tennis, most of all the Federer and del Potro forehands.
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