20 is a score... the score is 20!

After Roger Federer seized three of the last four Grand Slam events he’s played, his halcyon days are, quite astonishingly, back again.

Overcome by the moment is Roger Federer. Tears of joy are, of course, in order when you claim your 20th Grand Slam singles crown!   -  GETTY IMAGES

Champions are people who want to leave their sport better off than when they started.

– Arthur Ashe

Records are made to be broken. And Roger Federer keeps breaking them or extending his own records. Like his 20th Grand Slam title in Melbourne. He reached that once-unimaginable milestone by capturing his second straight and sixth overall Australian Open crown, equalling the record shared by Novak Djokovic and Roy Emerson.

That Federer achieved these historic records at an age when nearly every previous champion was long retired or way past his prime may surprise the sports world, but not the superlative Swiss. When asked by ESPN if he is better at 36 than 25 — when he won three majors — Federer responded with the same clarity and decisiveness that epitomise his incomparable game.

Read: Finally, ‘Sunshine’ dispels dark clouds!

“I would think I’m better,” said Federer. “Don’t you think I would have improved after all these years?” This rhetorical question would have sounded silly just 12 months ago. Then, even The Mighty Fed conceded he would have been happy to have made the Australian quarterfinals after missing the last six months of 2016 due to injuries and not winning a major for four and a half years. But after Federer seized three of the last four Grand Slam events he’s played, his halcyon days are, quite astonishingly, back again. Quite simply, a new and stronger era challenged Federer to become a new and better player.

“The game has changed. We all hit bigger (harder). You have to take time away from your opponent,” explained Federer. “Before I was never able to return serve the way I’m doing it today. I was always chipping it. I really enjoy coming over the backhand (with topspin) now. Also quick tennis — seeing the openings and coming to net. I see it, I sense it, and that’s what I do so well now. In my best years, between 2004 and 2008, my strengths were my defence and making the transition to offence. Now it’s more offence all the time.

“But I’m also serving better, more consistently, and my second serve is definitely bigger,” Federer continued. “That’s because it’s required. So I’m happy to be able to evolve over all these years because it makes it more fun for me to play different tennis today than 10 years ago.”

There you have it, the Federer formula for championship longevity. “Fun” was an understatement, though. As 1980s star John McEnroe noted, “Federer loves to play more than anyone I’ve ever seen. Of course, it’s easier when you win as much as he does.”

Read: Turning up the heat

Marin Cilic hoped to make it extremely difficult for Federer to win when they clashed in the 100thAustralian Open final and 50th of the Open Era. Cilic had “crushed”— Federer’s term — the Swiss 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 in the semifinals at the 2014 US Open where he won his only major title. So the 29-year-old Croatian had the proverbial “puncher’s chance.”

A 28-to-1 pre-tournament longshot, Cilic had two incentives besides beating the GOAT in a major final. A second Grand Slam title would guarantee him a place in the International Tennis Hall of Fame. It would also separate him from a group that the tennis media harshly dismiss as “one Slam wonders.”

But Federer was heavily favoured, having taken seven of their eight career matches, including a 6-3, 6-1, 6-4 thrashing in the 2017 Wimbledon final. Painful foot blisters impeded Cilic’s movement and serve, and the compromised Cilic shed tears after the bitterly disappointing defeat.

Advantage Federer

This time both players were healthy, though Federer came into the final far fresher. He spent six less hours on the court and played some 400 less points than Cilic. Capitalising on an easy draw, Federer outclassed in straight sets his first five opponents, none ranked higher than No. 19 and over-the-hill Tomas Berdych. Then he benefited still more when surprise semifinalist Hyeon Chung, a fast-rising, 21-year-old Korean, was forced to retire when down 6-1, 5-2 because of a blister on his left foot. The 58th-ranked Chung earlier had scored shocking upsets over Djokovic and fourth-seeded Alexander Zverev.

Cilic, however, had to endure three matches lasting more than three hours each. The most enervating encounter came against No. 1-ranked and 16-time major winner Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals. Cilic overcame a slow start to prevail 3-6, 6-3, 6-7, 6-2, 2-0 when Nadal retired because of upper leg muscle injury. Nadal then lambasted the ATP Tour, contending, “Too many people are getting injured” because of the many hard court tournaments on the schedule. Cilic also survived a tough four-set match against No. 10 Pablo Carreno Busta.

Marin Cilic lost focus in the fifth set.   -  AFP

 

What did Federer really think of the No. 6 Cilic? With a “velvet hammer” only the normally diplomatic and immensely popular Federer could get away with, he remarked, “Cilic has proved he can play at a high level occasionally.”

If Federer’s respect for Cilic was measured, Cilic may have respected Federer too much. He nervously shanked an overhead to lose his serve in the opening set. The 6’ 6” Croatian soon found himself down 4-0, losing 16 of the first 21 points. The final seemed more like a coronation than a competition.

After dropping the first set 6-2 in a mere 24 minutes, Cilic knew he’d have to dictate most of the rallies to have any chance against Federer, a more versatile shotmaker and superior athlete. He also knew he’d have to strengthen and vary his second serve because Federer was attacking it from inside the baseline 91% of the time, compared to only 45% for the less aggressive Nadal. “For Cilic to win this match, he has to win this (second) set,” stressed all-time great Martina Navratilova, a Tennis Channel analyst.

Even The Great Ones, like Federer, are not immune to the pressure of breaking hallowed records. You may remember when Serena Williams, just two victories away from a Grand Slam in 2015, choked shot after shot and suffered a shocking 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 upset to unseeded Roberta Vinci in the US Open semifinals.

“Today was particularly difficult,” Federer confided to ESPN, “because after I won the first set I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to feel if I win number 20 today.’”

Fortunately for the packed Rod Laver Arena crowd who wanted a competitive match as much as a Federer victory, Cilic fought off break points in the third, fifth and ninth games in the second set to force a tiebreaker. Fed had taken their three previous tiebreakers. But this time a hyper-aggressive Cilic hammered Federer’s backhand, whacked three forehand winners, and smashed away a towering lob on the final point to win the tiebreaker, 7-5.

Tiebreaker tension

“Then when I lost the tiebreaker,” Federer recalled, “I got really nervous and thought, ‘How am I going to feel if I miss number 20?’ That kept going on in my head over and over. Finally, I was able to shake those nerves off and play normal tennis at the end.”

But “the end” would take three more sets and nearly two more hours. Federer restored order in the pivotal third set, making 22 of 27 first serves and easily holding serve five times. Using his bag of tricks — soft, short backhand slices mixed with deep, powerful groundstrokes — to disrupt Cilic’s rhythm, Federer broke serve for 4-2 and took the set 6-3.

Rafael Nadal retired due to injury in the quarter-finals against Cilic. He then blamed the increasing number of hardcourt tournaments for playing havoc with players’ physique.   -  GETTY IMAGES

 

Tennis is a game of momentum and emotion, and both players were feeling the tension as the match fluctuated. Cilic fretted over his just-restrung rackets arriving late, while Federer complained angrily to his player’s box about a line call.

When Federer broke Cilic’s serve to start the fourth set and Federer easily held serve for a 2-0 lead, it looked like victory was near for the Swiss maestro. But Cilic escaped a break point in the third game with a forehand winner, and then, out of the blue, Federer played his worst game of the final. Two unforced errors and a double fault gave Cilic a break. Suddenly, Cilic was back in the match at 3-all.

In the topsy-turvy eighth game, Federer held two game points but couldn’t convert them. Cilic saved one with a crosscourt forehand winner that ended a sensational power point. Federer saved two break points, but succumbed on the third one to give Cilic a 5-3 lead. After Cilic confidently served out the next game at love to clinch the set 6-3, McEnroe commented, “This is the first time in this match Federer has looked his age. He’s not moving well.”

The opening game of the deciding set proved the most entertaining, and as it turned out, the most critical of the final. With both players pounding the ball, Federer had a game point, serving at 40-30. He failed to challenge a big Cilic forehand landing a half-inch beyond the baseline, and Cilic finished him off with an overhead winner. Cilic had two break points, but Federer escaped both with strong serves Cilic couldn’t return. Fed yelled “C’mon!” after the second escape. The highly partisan crowd was roaring louder than ever when Federer won a point. The cheers hit a crescendo when their favourite whacked a backhand crosscourt winner smack on the sideline to finally hold serve. “The crowd is against you when you play Federer, even though you’re the underdog,” pointed out McEnroe.

Federer commisserates with Hyeon Chung after the latter retired injured due to a blistered foot in their semi-final. Chung had had a dream run.   -  GETTY IMAGES

When Cilic didn’t convert those two break points, the energy seemed to drain out of him. In the next game, he double faulted twice and lost his serve. With a 2-0 lead and the momentum, a relaxed Federer rediscovered his service rhythm, pounded several of his 24 aces, and coasted to a 6-2, 6-7, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 triumph.

As the first man to join the exclusive “20 Club,” Federer trails only Margaret Court (24), Serena Williams (23) and Steffi Graf (22). He may catch or surpass them, too. “If Roger stays healthy, he may have another four years in him,” said Navratilova. “He’s astonishing.”

The ageless Federer also became the oldest man to win the Aussie Open since 37-year-old Ken Rosewall in 1972. Another Australian legend, 79-year-old “Rocket” Rod Laver, was so impressed he took photos of Federer on his mobile phone during the trophy ceremony.

“I’m so happy. It’s unbelievable,” Federer told the admiring crowd. “Of course, winning is an absolute dream come true. The fairy tale continues for us, for me. After the great year I had last year, it’s incredible.”

Tears flowed down Federer’s cheeks, as they so often endearingly do, after Grand Slam finals in victory or defeat.

When asked by ESPN why he broke down, Federer said, “I think tonight was because I didn’t have the emotional rollercoaster matches during the tournament. Because of this, my emotions were kept, like in a jar. It becomes extremely emotional in the ceremony when I can thank everybody — thank my team, thank my wife, thank my parents, thank the legends, thank the people.

“It just hit me then that I’ve worked hard, everyone has worked so hard that I’m the lucky one who can stand there and thank everyone. And the fans in particular because if I’m playing well today, it’s because of them as well.”

Thank you, Roger. You’re the people’s champion as well as the greatest champion.

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