MELBOURNE, Australia – The moment Marin Cilic missed his final return in the fifth set, Roger Federer burst into tears.
His moment of triumph was delayed, as often happens these days, by one final, futile Hawkeye challenger.
But the deed was done. The 36-year-old from Switzerland had won the Australian Open men’s singles title, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 3-6, 6-1.
Federer held it together fairly well during the trophy presentations, until the end, When he thanked his team and his family, he lost it again.
The crowd roared.
And every time Federer thought it was over, the noise of the ovation would swell up again, and the tears would swell in Federer’s eyes again.
Federer has shed tears on this court before. Back in 2009, they were tears of defeat, when longtime rival Rafael Nadal had to comfort him when he just couldn’t hold them back.
Last year, they were tears of unexpected joy.
This year, they may well have been tears of relief after stressing himself into a frenzy for 36 hours before the match.
Which didn’t make that moment any less special, or any less impressive.
No. 20, and a successful defense
It is the 20th Grand Slam title of Federer’s career. That puts him four ahead of Nadal, and eight ahead of Novak Djokovic. He successfully defended a major title for the time since he won back-to-back US Opens a decade ago, in 2007 and 2008.
A decade later, Federer has practically made time stand still. His brand of tennis remains a champion’s brand still.
Federer had help. What looked early on to be a rout – “I got off on a flyer, which was great,” he said – became an intense battle for a significant length of time. Cilic found his rhythm and refused to bow. Federer’s thoughts got the better of him.
“I just think I froze in the tiebreak, end of the second. I just think I got really nervous. And then it got to be a match, it got tight. I think Marin helped me out in the third and in the fifth to stretch the lead a little bit. I couldn’t stop the bleeding almost. It was terrible. He was in control. He was the one calling the shots all of a sudden,” Federer said during one of his myriad post-match television interviews.
“My mind was all over the place. ‘I’m so close right now. Don’t mess it up.’ It always happens, and it’s crazy. I had to get lucky, to be quite honest, at the beginning of the fifth. I personally don’t think I’ll come back if he breaks me first. But crazier things have happened – like last year.”
A year ago, Federer was down 1-3 in the fifth set to Nadal, down and almost out, and came back to win. This time, Cilic was down 1-3 in the fifth set. But he couldn’t manage to duplicate the feat.
Cilic vs. Federer – and 15,000 FedFans
He was a worthy runner-up, a classy competitor who persevered despite the almost unilateral support inside Rod Laver Arena for his opponent.
It’s hard to even fathom how quiet it would have been in there, had the Croat found the path to victory.
When it got to a fifth set, Cilic actually had a superior record. He was 27-12 going in; Federer was 29-20. But as a former champion once said, the fifth set isn’t about tennis.
“Well, momentum was on my side from 3-2 or even 3-1 in that fourth set. I came back, won the set 6-3. Plus it was all games that I deserved and earned really well. I played great tennis, started to return really good,” Cilic said. “That first game of the first set, putting a lot of pressure, four break points, I went for my shots and didn’t make them.”
A testy test of nerves
Both players were on short fuses. Early on in the match, Cilic was fretting about the string tension in his rackets. He sent numerous sticks out for restringing and angrily, almost in a panic, gestured at his box about the situation.
For his part, Federer was snarky with one linesman on a call. And he was an absolute cranky pants with chair umpire Jake Garner about making sure he reminded him when they were about to change to new tennis balls.
“Talk to me, talk to me, remind me, 3-0 in the fifth, I can’t do it all by myself,” he told Garner.
Federer said the 7:30 p.m. start for the final was the worst thing in the world. It gave him all those extra hours to think about the match, debate himself about the likely outcome, overthink every little thing.
Long day’s journey into 20
“I think my thoughts were all over the place all day. I was thinking, what if I lost, what if I won, every minute of the day. Thank God I slept until 11. Imagine if I woke up at 7 and was up 12 hours before the match,” he said.
“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.”
He likened the feeling after it was over to the 2006 final against Marcos Baghdatis.
“I had a great run to the finals, was a huge favourite going in. Keeping my composure. The matches weren’t emotional going to the finals but I felt so relieved when it was done,” he said.
Just like Sunday night.
“That’s why I couldn’t speak. It was terrible … When I start thinking about what I was going to say, every subject I touch actually is very meaningful and very emotional. Thanking your team, congratulating Marin, thanking the people, thanking the tournament. … But I hoped over time in the speech I would start to relax a little bit, but I couldn’t,” Federer said.
“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. (Having) no people in the stadium wouldn’t make me emotional, I’ll tell you that. This is for them really also.”
Federer didn’t even notice the legendary Rod Laver taking video of him bawling on his iPhone. “I didn’t even see it happening because I was crying too much,” he said. “I couldn’t lift my head. And I was just too embarrassed. It was terrible.”
20 Slams? Not terrible
This was Federer’s sixth title in Australia, tied with Roy Emerson and Djokovic for most all time. He has eight Wimbledons, five US Opens (tied for most in the Open era) and that one French Open in 2009.
At this point, there seems to be no end in sight. Because Federer has everything in place.
“I think by not overplaying, not playing every tournament possible. I enjoy practice. Not minding the travel. Having a great team around me, they make it possible. At the end it’s seeing that my parents are incredibly proud and happy that I’m still doing it. They enjoy coming to tournaments. That makes me happy and play better,” he said.
“Then, of course, my wife who makes it all possible. Without her support, I wouldn’t be playing tennis no more since many years … I’m happy that she’s super supportive, and she’s willing to take on a massive workload with the kiddies. Same for me, because I wouldn’t want to be away from my kids for more than two weeks. This life wouldn’t work if she said no. Many puzzles need to fit together for me to be able to sit here tonight.”
(All illustrations except 2006 Federer: Channel 7 screenshots)