Australian Open 2018: Roger Federer defeats Marin Cilic to earn 20th grand slam title

The only misleading number there has been about Roger Federer is the one that begins with a 30 and grows every year. Presently it reads that he is 36. That number seems doubtful ... although he is Swiss, so of course time should work efficiently for him.

Now Federer has a new and significant number that now begins with a 20 and it too appears to defy age to grow by the year.

Federer's place in history was never at stake here, it was only about the numbers, or a number. Would he be the first man to win 20 grand slam titles? The fact he was the first man to hit 19 - and for that matter 18, 17 and 16 - made the next step only one for neat completion for the numerically minded.

Now Federer has moved to a new threshold of title victories - for men - of 20. Three women - Margaret Court, Serena Williams and Steffi Graf - have all won 20 or more.

Yet it isn't just the 20 that is remarkable. It is the three, the last three that he has won in the last 12 months. Federer has now won more in this career twilight than other players win in exalted careers. Federer had not won a slam for four years and wondered if he would win one again with the arrival of a new generation. He has now won three of the last five available. That is a stanza of dominance the equal of any stage of his career, and yet he is theoretically at the end of his career.

How can this be the end of his career when it is also his peak?

For a period earlier in his career, the question was who would win more titles in their sport: Federer or Tiger. Then Tiger, well we know what happened to Tiger. So the question shifted to Rafa and whether he would overhaul Roger. It was that backdrop that informed the sense of history about last year's final.

Roger Federer celebrates his 20th grand slam victory after defeating a dogged Marin Cilic of Croatia. Photo: Andy Brownbill

Roger Federer celebrates his 20th grand slam victory after defeating a dogged Marin Cilic of Croatia. Photo: Andy Brownbill

Then, when Federer won the Australian Open, it was historic. It was epic and grand and greater than another match because it was against Rafa and spoke to a generation of rivalry.

This year's Federer victory - his Australian Open VI - was also historic because of that 20 title number. And it was grand. And it was epic in a five-set way if not for a storied history between him and CIlic.

Federer has a moment to himself amid the enormity of his achievement. Photo: AP

Federer has a moment to himself amid the enormity of his achievement. Photo: AP

It was grand because Federer had to find his game again mid-match. He lost five straight games and a second set to Cilic to see this match slip to a fifth set. From a break up to be 3-1 in the fourth set, Federer lost five straight games. 

The match as a contest was befitting of the place in history that a victory would further entrench for Federer. After an inauspicious Marin Cilic's big forehand ensured it delivered that five set match.  

Cilic made Federer earn this in a way that seemed unlikely when he lost the first set gently 6-2. Cilic made his own history at this Open, becoming the first man to take a set from Federer. 

Federer had beaten Cilic in eight of the last nine times they had played. To Federer's 19 grand slam singles titles Cilic held his one. They had played one another at Wimbledon last year and Federer won it in straight sets.

Playing Federer is stifling enough, but it was 38 degrees outside when the pair walked onto Rod Laver Area. The roof was closed at the stadium and the air conditioning turned on so it was cooler than that inside.

The decision to close the roof prompted criticism from, among others Pat Cash, who questioned why it would be closed for the outdoor event, presumably for reasons other than rain. The decision was taken under the extreme-heat policy where the wet-bulb reading exceeds 32.5 degrees.

Open officials dismissed the suggestion the decision to close the roof was connected to the ESPN report that women's runner-up Simona Halep was admitted to hospital for four hours overnight Saturday for treatment for dehydration after her final loss to Caroline Wozniacki.

Federer began the match in a hurry. He hustled at Cilic's serve, standing inside the baseline to bunt the ball back and paying no mind to the fact Cilic has one of the bigger serves in the game.

He broke Cilic's first two service games as the Croatian was nervous and uncertain in the heavy conditions and began worrying that maybe it was the stringing of his racquet that was the problem. Ordinarily when you are playing Federer when he is playing like this you might not assume it was the tightness of the racquet that was the problem. The first set was gone before Cilic had time to strum the strings, beaten 6-2 in 24 minutes.

Having gone down in the first set, Cilic became more assertive on serve and aggressive in his shot selection. The third game of the second set was critical. Having been stronger on his last few service games Cilic had to hold his serve or there was a sense the match would be over in quick time. That game took over nine minutes - nearly half as long as the entire first set took, and Cilic held. He then won the set in a tiebreak.

Federer took the next set easily but a change came over the match in the fourth set when Cilic was swinging hard on the return of serve and Federer's first serve left him.

The champion became frustrated and tetchy, admonishing himself loudly at times, sarcastically criticising his play and a decision to call for an unnecessary review. 

Cilic had meanwhile hit himself into form. His forehand was booming and his serve was tighter and harder to get back.   

Cilic had the momentum when he pushed the match into a fifth set. Federer was fighting himself and Cilic was riding the wave. 

You can assume experience was the difference in the fifth set. Federer knew how to get where he needed to go, he had done it 19 times before.

The Age

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