“It’s tough, man,” Roger Federer told the audience in Rod Laver Arena on Sunday night, as he struggled to hold back tears after his five-set win over Marin Cilic in the Australian Open final.
Longtime Federer watchers may have been reminded of another three-word line that he uttered from the same stage nine years ago.
“It’s killing me,” a 27-year-old Federer said in 2009, as he struggled to hold back tears after losing to Rafael Nadal in that year’s final, which also went five sets.
In both cases, Federer failed to stem the waterworks. In both cases, his tears will be remembered and replayed far more often than anything that happened in the matches themselves.
But those were the only similarities between the two scenes. This time, despite being 36 instead of 27, Federer held off a surging, younger opponent rather than succumbing to one. This time, instead of losing belief, and control of his shots, down the stretch, he found both. This time, instead of letting the other guy run away with the fifth set 6-2, he was the one who kicked into overdrive and won it, 6-1.
“Vintage Federer” is the term we always hear on nights like this, nights when he wins 15 of the first 18 points, when he smacks 24 aces, when he uses his artful variety to undermine a more powerful, more one-dimensional opponent. But this Federer is not like the Federer of his mid-20s prime in at least one very important regard: he’s a better, more stubborn competitor now than he was then.
Federer’s 6-2, 6-7 (4), 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 win over Cilic reminded me not so much of his loss to Nadal at the 2009 Australian Open, but of his loss in another five-set Grand Slam final the same year, to Juan Martin del Potro at the U.S. Open.
In both matches, Federer won the first set routinely, before backing off just enough to allow his opponent to sneak through the second in a tiebreaker. In both matches, Federer won the third set and looked sure to win the title in the fourth, before faltering again. In both matches, as the fifth set began, Federer’s opponent had built up a head of steam and was dominating the rallies with rockets from the back of the court. And in both matches, Federer began to take out his frustration on the officials at hand: In New York, he aimed his wrath at chair umpire Jake Garner (who also worked this final); last night in Melbourne, Federer muttered a sarcastic “Nice call, buddy,” to a line judge who had robbed him of a potential winner.
Then came the difference in the two finals. In 2009, Federer couldn’t find an answer to Del Potro’s power and lost the fifth set going away, 6-2. This time, Federer clenched his first, stepped forward in the court, and found a way to stem the Cilic tide.
In the first game of the fifth, Federer saved a break point with a service winner, and celebrated with his loudest roar of the tournament. Two points later, after he’d been pushed around at the baseline for the better part of an hour, Federer stood his ground in a rally, came over his backhand, and flicked a winner that secured the hold.
In the next game, with Cilic serving at 0-1, Federer again held his ground and switched to a more offensive tactic. Instead of slicing his backhand return on Cilic’s first serve, the way he typically does, he came over it and caught Cilic off guard with a deep return. Then, on break point, Federer came over another backhand return, again catching Cilic off guard. Federer had the service break and the 2-0 lead; the tide had turned for good.
“[I was] just really trying to get back winning a game again, because he came back from 3-2 and won four straight,” Federer said when he was asked what was going through his mind at the start of the fifth set. “So for me, it was really just trying to break his momentum. 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 that’s exactly what happened.”
“I think experience helped me there a little bit, and also a little bit of luck.”
Federer was fortunate in one regard: He was playing Cilic, who has rarely threatened him the way del Potro or Nadal have. The Croat helped Federer’s cause mightily at the start of the fifth set. Up break point in the opening game, he got a look at a Federer second serve and drilled his forehand return into the net. Then, serving at 0-1, he double faulted twice and missed two makable forehands.
“I went for my shots and didn’t make them,” Cilic said, “It ran away from me.”
Still, Cilic should be pleased to have made people forget, at least for the moment, his Wimbledon debacle of last year. With Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray on the mend, Cilic is one of the few legitimate challengers to Federer or Nadal right now. This was the first time since their re-ascension last January that anyone has taken a set from Roger or Rafa in a major final.
For now, as Federer said, “the fairytale continues.” Since returning last year, he’s 59-5; just as impressive, he’s 13-3 in deciding sets. Yes, he has improved his backhand and his return and his movement, but he’s also out-competing and out-lasting his younger opponents.
And he’s not getting any less emotional about it. In 2006 Federer had cried after winning the Australian Open and receiving the trophy from Rod Laver. This time Laver snapped photos from the stands as Federer wept again.
“I didn’t see that through my thick tears, that he was taking a picture of me crying,” Federer said of Laver. “…When I start thinking about what I was going to say, every subject I touch actually is very meaningful and very emotional.”
Being mentioned in the same breath with Laver is one of the things that makes Federer emotional, and for good reason. Laver won 11 Grand Slam titles; but considering that he was banned from those events for five of his prime years, I’ve always imagined that his real major total would have been something like 20.
Now Federer has actually won 20. That’s even better.
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