MELBOURNE—It was 1:10 a.m. Monday morning when Roger Federer walked into the main media room, located on the fourth floor of Melbourne Park’s new media center. A year ago, he had also won a five-set Australian Open singles final, over Rafael Nadal. The cornerstones of that victory had been redemption and even surprise, Federer at that point having gone more than four years without winning a Grand Slam title.
This year's five-set final-round triumph, over Marin Cilic, was perhaps more a spirit of relief, followed by rejoice.
“The night is still young,” Federer said as he held the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup—the trophy he last year dubbed “Norman”—aloft.
The data would show that Federer had won a staggering 20th Grand Slam singles title, beating Cilic by the score of 6-2, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 3-6, 6-3. “I think experience helped me there a little bit,” said Federer, “and also a little bit of luck, I felt like I needed a little bit tonight.”
It his third Grand Slam victory in the last 12 months and first successful title defense of one since the 2008 US Open. But data meant nothing in the face of the emotions Federer went through this evening. Last year, against his toughest rival, he overcame a 3-1 fifth-set deficit. But against Cilic, Federer had suddenly gone from driver to passenger, seeing his 3-1 lead vanish when leading by two sets to one. He then found himself down a pair of break points in the opening game of the fifth set.
“For me it was really just trying to break his momentum,” said Federer. “Tried to serve well. Tried to get lucky a little bit. I think I was able to get that first game, at least get on the board. From then on, maybe momentum shifts a little bit, and it's exactly what happened.”
As late as 6:15 this evening, the temperature at Melbourne Park was 101 degrees. It was also quite humid, so oven-like that the tournament invoked its “Extreme Heat Policy.” For the second straight match, Federer would play under the roof, a rather beneficial development given that he was giving away seven years to his opponent. Outdoors, triple-digit temperatures remained all through the match. Inside, with the air-conditioning humming, it was as mild as a California seaside town. The contradiction was jarring.
The final day of a tournament, especially at a Grand Slam tournament, takes on the qualities of a ghost town. Nowhere is this austerity more eerie than in the player cafe, a hot spot lined with 65 tables—shared rectangles, cozy circles, dozens of metal chairs. Early on in the tournament, it’s standing room only, the buzz and noise evocative of a shopping center (which in a way, it is).
On this last evening in Melbourne Park, though, all but a scant half-dozen tables were empty, quiet as an airline lounge at 2:00 a.m. At one table milled several members of Federer’s support team, Roger himself not among them. At another, 15 feet away, sat the smaller Cilic group, including the Croat, who exchanged a few words an hour prior to the match with a past coach, Australian Bob Brett, as he sought to properly calibrate relaxation with intensity.
It was hard to assess this match soberly. There is around Federer these days such a vibe of Royal Procession—fans, officials and, yes, even we allegedly neutral media types eager to profess witness to this tennis genius’ sustained excellence. After all, what would be more meaningful to say 10 years or even ten minutes from now: that you’d been there for Federer’s 20th Slam title victory or Cilic’s second? Yes, it was true that to see a Federer triumph was akin to saying one had attended a Beatles concert.
So Cilic in this case had been the designated patsy, the pawn in the conspiracy of tennis history. He’d played the part nicely to start, broken in the opening game, collateral damage as Federer tore through the first set in 24 minutes. Would this go as swiftly as their Wimbledon final, one Federer had won handily in straight sets?
But as much as Federer zealots would love their king to rule eternally, that’s impossible in a sport. Cilic won the second set, then lost the third. And when Federer broke early in the third, even holding a point for a 3-0, double break led, another coronation seemed imminent—that is, until he lost five straight games. “Last year I improved a lot in different areas,” said Cilic. “Now in these last couple months, I improve me even more. So that gives me confidence.”
As the fifth set began, a memory surfaced. There had been the 2009 US Open final, when Federer had surrendered a two-sets-to-one lead against another powerful baseliner, Juan Martin del Potro (who like Cilic, had previously beaten Rafael Nadal in the same tournament), and then was overpowered in the final set. At the time, Federer was just 28, and that year already the champion of Roland Garros and Wimbledon.
Prior to this evening’s match, I’d spoken with my Tennis Channel colleague, Martina Navratilova. We recalled her frequent comment that as a player got older, Grand Slam finals became more nerve-wracking, the aging contender aware of a career closer to midnight than morning. But somehow, we noted, Federer had been immune to that kind of emotional aging, a racquet-toting Dorian Gray of sorts.
But, as had happened versus del Potro those many years ago, would the picture splatter into pieces? After Federer held to start the fifth, he immediately broke and held to go up 3-0. Precisely three hours into the match, he broke Cilic for 5-1. The crowd erupted with the fury usually seen in Davis Cup.
Federer served out the final handily, the only speed bump a Cilic challenge on the last point (the second year in a row Federer’s victory had been concluded with a challenge). Said Federer, “The thing is, I thought that was it. Then I don't know what happened. The people started clapping. I was, like, Am I wrong to think the match is over? Have I celebrated too early? I almost had to check the score.”
Thirty-eight of the media room’s seats were occupied for Cilic’s press conference. There had been a dozen questions asked in English, ranging from Federer’s ability to hit topspin and slice on his backhand to the decision to play under the roof—“With the roof closed,” said Cilic, “it was way, way cooler than I expected. That was very, very difficult, especially the beginning of the match.”—to Cilic’s feelings on his play. All the typical queries one hears after just about any match.
But the bigger question, the question that was impossible to ask Cilic in the wake of defeat, was also the one everyone would study for years to come: What really makes Roger Federer so great? Here was how I’d attempted to wedge my way into that dialogue when I’d asked Cilic this:
Q. We all know that Federer is this larger-than-life tennis person. You know that, too. How do you put that aside while you're trying to compete with this guy?
MARIN CILIC: Well, very simple: it's for me big focus on myself. I know what I have worked on, how much I dedicate myself, how well I played during the tournament. Looking at the final, for me it was just another match, even though it was a big challenge playing the final first time, playing Roger. I knew that I have to play my great tennis in order to beat him.
But, you know, it's always very, very challenging to play him, as he's always keeping his game on a high level.
Words have their limits.
And once again, as Federer burst into tears during the trophy ceremony, as Rod Laver pulled out his cellphone to shoot photos of the tear-soaked champion, we were reminded that Federer, so cool in his performance, oozes the passion it takes to succeed in this incredibly demanding sport.
Said Federer, “Thanking your team, congratulating Marin, thanking the people, thanking the tournament. At the end it's like one big party. But I hoped over time in the speech I would start to relax a little bit, but I couldn't. It was what it was. I wish it wasn't so sometimes. At the same time I'm happy I can show emotions and share it with the people.”
Hardly a god. Just a human.
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