How it happened: Federer outlasts Cilic for sixth Australian Open win

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Marin Cilic has lost each of his last two Grand Slam finals to Roger Federer. (AP)

When Roger Federer came to Melbourne for the 2017 Australian Open after six months away from the game with a knee injury, he had not won a Grand Slam tournament for an awfully long time. His last triumphant journey at a major had been in 2012 at Wimbledon  Since that victory, he had appeared in 15 majors, reaching three finals, losing them all to his magnificent rival Novak Djokovic. There were many astute members of the tennis community who believed that he would never again collect one of the premier prizes.

But Federer improbably won that Australian Open a year ago, and now he has done it again Down Under. By virtue of a memorable five-set triumph over Marin Cilic, Federer took the Australian Open title for the sixth time to tie Djokovic and Roy Emerson for the most men’s titles won, raised his record in Grand Slam tournament finals to 20-10, improved his career five-set record to 30-20, and collected a 96th career singles title. For the Swiss Maestro, it was time to celebrate another prodigious achievement at the start of a new season, and surely a moment to savor forever.

Federer had not defended a major championship victory since the 2008 US Open. But the most remarkable thing to consider as we reflect on the latest Federer display of greatness is simply this: the 36-year-old has now won three of the four majors that he has contested since the start of the 2017 season. No one, note even Federer himself, could have imagined such a scenario only 12 months ago. But here he is, sweeping through history once more, treating every big win as if he had never done it before, competing with a quiet fury that is his most underrated trait.

He needed more than a measure of mental toughness to stop Cilic on this occasion. It was a final round contest that Federer seemed destined to win comfortably, but ultimately he needed to bear down hard in the trenches to pull away inexorably down the stretch in the fifth set. It was not his most sterling performance on a prominent stage, and he might well have been beaten if Cilic was made of stronger emotional stock.

But after fighting ferociously for three hours and three minutes under the roof in Rod Laver Arena on an evening that was so humid that even the unflappable and fastidious Federer looked drenched at times, none of that mattered. He got the job done with unwavering pride. He came through with his customary professionalism. He did what a champion is supposed to do, and found success because he refused to accept failure. Federer reaffirmed how difficult it is to beat him when his mind is set on something of importance.

Federer commenced this encounter purposefully and played with clinical efficiency in the opening set, while Cilic was abysmally out of sorts when it started. The 6’6” Croatian was riddled with tension in the opening game of the match. At 30-40, he completely mishandled an overhead he should have made, and Federer had the immediate break. The Swiss went to 2-0 swiftly with a love hold, concluding that game with a crosscourt forehand winner. Federer mixed up his returns convincingly in the third game, breaking at 15 as Cilic inexcusably sent a backhand crosscourt wide.

Just like that, Federer had gone to 3-0. Cilic’s discomfort was apparent. Federer held at 15 for 4-0. He had won 16 of 20 points as Cilic could not find the range off the ground, partially because his feet were frozen. In the fifth game, the 2014 US Open champion—who beat Federer en route to his lone Grand Slam title—at last sunk his teeth into the battle. Despite missing four of six first serves, he held on. Cilic served beautifully in the seventh game to hold at love, releasing a pair of aces in that game. But he was always guessing on Federer’s serve. The No. 2 seed closed out the set 6-2 in only 24 minutes. In four service games, the flawless Federer took 16 of 18 points.

After that inauspicious start, Cilic gave his boosters little reason for encouragement. But by holding a couple of times at the end of the first set, he opened the second set in a better frame of mind. Cilic held easily in the first game and then drove a two-hander up the line for a winner to put Federer down 15-40 in the second game. Federer extinguished the threat forcefully, erasing the two break points with an ace and an inside-in forehand winner. He held for 1-1 on a run of four consecutive points. Cilic then survived a five deuce game to reach 2-1, saving a break point with an ace. The frailty of his first set play was behind him. Cilic was clearly keeping his mind on the task ahead.

At 2-2, Cilic was back in precarious territory, but he saved a break point with a potent first serve and held on eventually with an ace. Federer answered with a love hold for 3-3, concluding that game with an ace down the T. But the complexion of the contest was changing. Cilic refused to buckle. He saved another break point in the ninth game with a second serve ace down the T, catching Federer learning the wrong way.

It was 5-4 for Cilic, and Federer was surely feeling the big man’s presence. Serving in the tenth game, Federer double faulted twice on his way to a 30-40 deficit. Cilic had arrived at set point, but he made a hash of it. After a decent return, he was poised for an easy two-hander, but sent that shot into the bottom of the net. With that glaring, unprovoked mistake from Cilic, Federer had been let off the hook. He held on for 5-5.

Despite the missed opportunity, Cilic stayed in the hunt. Both men held to set up a tie-break. When Federer got the first mini-break for 3-2, he seemed poised to establish a two-set lead. But Cilic retaliated boldly, connecting with a second serve forehand return winner into the corner for 3-3. After Federer won the next point, Cilic won three in a row, moving to 6-4 with a decent return that set up a thundering forehand winner. Federer saved a set point with an ace, but Cilic wrapped up the set, by coming forward confidently and putting away an overhead off a high lob. Cilic prevailed 7-5 in the tie-break, moving back to one set all, stamping his authority on the match.

Federer, however, was imperturbable. His serve in the third set was virtually letter perfect. The defending champion put 22 of 27 first serves in play. He lost only seven points in five service games, and produced seven aces.

Cilic stayed with Federer until 2-2 in the third set, holding serve for the tenth time in a row. But Federer pounced in the sixth game, breaking for 4-2. Cilic commenced that game with a feeble forehand approach into the net, and never recovered. Federer was purposeful with every return.

Serving at 4-2, 15-15, Federer pulled off a piece of magic that only he could. Cilic drove a two-hander down the line with depth, and the ball was getting behind Federer. The Swiss somehow flicked a forehand half volley back with authority, and Cilic was caught off guard and drawn into an error. Federer held on there at 30 for 5-2 and served out the set two games later at love, delivering an ace out wide at 40-0. Set to Federer, 6-3.

Early in the fourth set, the Swiss seemed to sense that he could finish it all off swiftly. He used a short and low chipped backhand return to prod Cilic into an error at 30-40 in the opening game. Federer had the break for 1-0 and then held at 15 for 2-0. Cilic double faulted at 30-30 in the third game, and found himself one point away from going down two breaks. But he dug out of that danger with a forehand inside-in winner, an ace and a searing forehand down the line that was unanswerable. Cilic thus held on for 1-2.

Federer dit not fret. He held at love for 3-1 with a sparking sidespin backhand down the line drop shot winner. He was three holds away from a sixth Australian Open title. He was right where he wanted to be. He was seemingly on his way to closing it out on his own terms.

Cilic, though, was not signing up for that scenario. He held at 15 for 2-3 with an ace down the T, and then broke Federer at love in the following game. Federer made only one of four first serves, double faulted to trail 0-40, and fell into disarray. Cilic was surprisingly back to 3-3, but double faulted and followed with a netted backhand crosscourt put the Croatian down break point. He promptly put away an overhead, served an ace and released a service winner. It was 4-3 for a surging Cilic.

Federer then suffered through another jarring service game. He missed six first serves in a row but still managed to rally from 15-40 to lead game point. Cilic replied with a scorching forehand winner to finish off a high octane rally. An ace gave Federer a second game point but Cilic was unrelenting, hitting a crosscourt backhand return winner. He moved to break point for the third time and then sealed it with an inside-out forehand winner. Now serving for the set at 5-3, Cilic was unstoppable, holding at love without missing a first serve. He had captured five games in a row from a break down in the fourth to force a fifth and final set.

Federer appeared to be somewhat dazed by Cilic’s all-out display of power on serve and off the ground. It was apparent as he served the first game of the fifth set that he was confused about how to proceed. He did not seem to know the right way to contain a man who was firing away freely and controlling the tactical agenda with the speed of his shots.

Both players knew full well that the first game of the fifth set was going to be critical. Cilic had won five consecutive games. He was blowing Federer off the court. Federer needed to make a tough stand here or he might have been irrevocably wounded.

Federer led 40-30 but Cilic stung him again with a deep approach setting up an overhead winner. When Federer erred off the forehand on the next point, Cilic was at break point. But he missed an easy second serve return off the forehand. Cilic garnered a second break point, but Federer wiped that one away with an excellent first serve down the T. After three deuces, Federer held on with a dazzling backhand crosscourt winner on the sideline.

Not only had Federer halted Cilic’s momentum, but he had also restored his own pride and inner security. Plainly, Cilic was deeply disconcerted by not converting in that opening game of the fifth set. His serve in the next game was located poorly and was often lacking in velocity. Federer broke for 2-0 as Cilic served a double fault on the penultimate point of that game. In a seven-minute span, the match had been altered again.

The Swiss was taken to deuce in the third game but he held on with a service winner and a forehand that was pulled wide by the deteriorating Croatian. Federer had advanced to 3-0 in the fifth and would never look back. Cilic held at love for 1-3, but the tall fellow was spent. Federer won 12 of the last 13 points and three games in succession to complete a 6-2, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 victory.

For the first time in the tournament, at the final hurdle, after a fortnight when everything fell into place impeccably for a well-prepared individual who was enjoying himself to the hilt, Federer walked away with his 20th major title. Only Ken Rosewall has replicated Federer’s men’s feat of winning three majors after turning 35. The feeling grows that Federer will win at least two or three more Grand Slam tournaments before he leaves the game as one of the most beloved figures ever to pick up a racquet.


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