A crying Roger Federer is a sight to see. Choking, bumbling, tears streaked across his face, he looks fallible. Human.
And yet so much of what he does on the tennis court is other-worldly. He imagines perfection, delivers history, time and again. After scoring a comeback for the ages at the last Australian Open, Federer raised the bar even further this time. On Sunday, he beat a battling Marin Cilic 6-2, 6-7, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 at the Rod Laver Arena to take his record Grand Slam count to 20. Of the last five Grand Slams, he has won three. And he’s 36 years old.
“I’m so happy. It’s unbelievable,” said Federer, holding back tears during the presentation ceremony. “Of course, winning is an absolute dream come true — the fairytale continues for us, for me, after the great year I had last year, it’s incredible.”
His dream run, let’s call it the second coming, had started with an unlikely victory over his biggest rival Rafael Nadal in Melbourne in 2017. The Spaniard had had a particular hold over Federer and his narrative. But in five close sets, with his backhand working like a charm again, the Swiss broke free of it. At 35 he was not expected to win a Slam, having not won one since Wimbledon 2012. Federer had gone for broke, and come out with one of the most glinting triumphs of his career.
Federer has played with a born-again radiance and lightness ever since. He met Nadal four times last season, and beat him all four times. At Wimbledon, where he won his eighth title with minimum fuss, the Swiss talked about being a family fan, a father of four, who is good at tennis too. The game means a lot to him, it is apparent when he drops the game face and sobs in victory, but it doesn’t mean everything anymore. The Swiss doesn’t get tetchy after losses, as he sometimes used to in his supposed athletic prime, but he still dreams and works damn hard for them.
The thought of making more history still unnerves him.
“I was just really happy, to be honest, that it was all done,” said Federer, who had won his first Major at 2003 Wimbledon. “I was so nervous all day. It was eating me up inside. 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. I’ve had these moments in the past, but maybe never as extreme as tonight. Getting to 20 is obviously very, very special, no doubt.”
The Swiss admitted he had lost some sleep on the eve of his 30th Grand Slam final. But when the moment arrived, he was ready. Cilic, not quite. Having fought his way to the summit clash, the Croat seemed overcome by the occasion. His usually reliable serve wilted under pressure and the tight backhands gave him away. It took Federer 24 minutes to polish off the first set.
But the opening set didn’t quite indicate how close things were about to get for Federer. The Swiss was steady, but Cilic dared to have a greater say in the proceedings. After finding his serving range in the second set, the 6’6 Croat stepped it up in the tie-break. He hit a brilliant forehand return winner to get it 3-3 back on serve and took the attack to Federer there-on. In moments like these, when Cilic enforces his will and powerful game, he looks almost untouchable.
The Croat caught fire again in the middle of the fourth set, when he was 1-3 down. With the match almost slipping away from his grasp, he started hitting his way into it. Federer threw in two poor service games — his first serve percentage at 36 in the set — giving Cilic ample opportunity to plot a comeback. The Swiss looked shell-shocked by Cilic’s sudden onslaught, and started pushing the ball back into play rather than striking it with any intent. The Croat won five games in a row after being 1-3 down, and nearly out, was back in the contest.
But being the best big-match player in the game, Federer weathered the storm. He didn’t let Cilic tip him over the edge, when he was two break points down in the first game of the deciding set. Like he has so many times in the past, Federer leaned on to his serve to help him out of the spot of bother. Cilic couldn’t get the return into play on either of the break points. A backhand winner sealed the game for Federer.
Playing in the fifth set of a Slam final for the first time, the Croat couldn’t match his rival’s elevated level as Federer moved in for the kill. He broke Cilic’s serve in the second game with an exquisite backhand cross court return that the Croat could only hit back into the net.
“I was hitting the ball great. I was just playing phenomenal. Then first game of the fifth set was more or less crucial at the end with having those four, I believe, breakpoints that I didn’t convert. Just a little bit tougher game, my service game next game,” recalled Cilic. “Just, it ran away from me.”
Like it had for so many before him. He wasn’t good enough for long enough to topple Federer, whose mind works like that of a scientist and limbs move like those of an artist. In a repeat of last year’s final, it was left to Hawk-eye to declare Federer the winner, when Cilic challenged an unreturned serve out wide. The replay showed that Federer’s serve had caught a few millimetres of the line. Pinpoint perfection.
The stadium exploded into celebration. Their hero cried tears of joy. Another legend, Rod Laver, who lent his name to the Arena, rose to capture this rare connection between an athlete and his supporters.
“I hoped over time in the speech I would start to relax a little bit, but I couldn’t,” said Federer. “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. If I got emotional, it’s because it was a full crowd again.”
They were there for his genius, and for his ability to include them in it.