He may have downplayed his chances by claiming a 36-year-old should never be the favorite going into a major tournament. But on Sunday the irrepressible Roger Federer demonstrated exactly why he’s been so worthy of the label over the last two weeks in Melbourne, battling to a landmark 20th Grand Slam singles title—more than any other man in the game. The Swiss veteran overcame the towering Marin Čilić, 6–2, 6–7, 6–3, 3–6, 6–1, in a tense three hours under the roof at Rod Laver Arena to win back-to-back Australian Opens. In doing so, he became the second-oldest man to win a major in the Open era after Ken Rosewall set the record in 1972. Few would have bet against Federer going into Sunday’s match: He hadn’t dropped a single set en route to the final, and boasted a superior 8–1 head-to-head record against his Croatian opponent, whom he beat so comfortably in straight sets last year to clinch an eighth Wimbledon title.
There were indeed shades of that 2017 match early on as things began to go down a familiar path for Čilić, with Federer breaking quickly and rushing to a 3–0 lead in just under 10 minutes. The 36-year-old was hitting fluidly, giving Čilić no time and space on the court—attacking his shaky backhand and serving with characteristic accuracy, winning 92 percent of his first-serve points and 83 percent of his second. Čilić overcame his lack of rhythm and some high-pressure service games to reassert himself in the second set, running hard and returning well to claim a tiebreaker of the tightest margins. His game did improve markedly as the match progressed, but the unforced errors continued to climb—he had 64 in total—while Federer stayed consistent on serve, and clinical on the return, breaking Čilić in the third to go within touching distance of his 20th major.
The Swiss—who has continued to adapt his game on the back of an incredible 2017 that saw him dominate the ATP tour and win two slams—seemed on another level in the early parts of the fourth set, sensing what looked to be a routine win. But Čilić clawed his way back into the match, firing a huge forehand winner to cap an 18-shot rally in the seventh game, playing with discipline and a newfound aggression to break the seemingly impenetrable Federer serve twice. Čilić hit 13 winners to Federer’s six, and landed 77 percent of his first serves compared to a shockingly low 36 percent from the five-time Australian Open champion, who was left scratching his head as the prospect of a fifth set loomed.
Čilić, looking to rediscover some of the snarl and firepower that saw him swat Federer aside on his winning run at the 2014 U.S. Open, could not ultimately maintain his momentum, as his opponent’s experience and versatility prevailed in the end. Federer dug his heels in and continued to mix up his game, returning well on Čilić’s weak second serve, regaining some consistency on his own service game, and, most importantly, dispatching both break-point opportunities ruthlessly to claim a second Australian Open in as many years.
As his remarkable return to the top continues, the question of what Federer does next hangs over every tournament he plays, though he’s under less pressure to prove himself than he was in 2017. Having endured four long years without a single major, the Swiss looked likely to end his career with a nagging back injury and a record total 17 titles but now has three new ones in the span of 12 months. He looks fit, well-equipped to cope with more athletic, younger opponents, and is playing with an ease that perhaps only age and success can afford him. It seems probable that, like last year, he’ll choose to skip the entire exhausting clay-court season and preserve himself for a return to his favorite surface—the grass at Wimbledon—come July. He’ll almost certainly be tipped to retain his title in London if he plays with the same offensive prowess he demonstrated in Melbourne.
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Looking at the rest of the field of great male players beyond Federer, it seems many are beginning to fade with injury. Spain’s Rafael Nadal, perhaps the only player who had a sweeter 2017 than Federer, with two slams and the world No. 1 ranking to boot, retired in the quarter-finals against Čilić with a hip injury. He’s claimed it’s a minor snag that will keep him off the tour for just a few weeks. But at 31, and with the unforgiving athletic demands of his baseline game, it’s unclear how likely Nadal is to stay healthy and mount a genuine challenge beyond Roland-Garros, which he’ll be expected to win for a staggering 11th time this year.
Andy Murray, 30, has also been suffering a longer-term hip problem that ruled him out of the tournament entirely, while Stan Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic, whom Federer matched with his sixth Australian Open win, looked noticeably off-color with early exits in Melbourne. The sharp decline of the 30-year-old Djokovic, a 12-time Grand Slam champion who returned after six months out with an elbow injury, has been startling to watch over the last couple of years; he’ll be eager to mimic Federer’s late-career renaissance, although the latter’s game is far quicker and less taxing on the body compared to the Serb’s.
As Djokovic and others struggled for form in Melbourne this year, the conditions for up-and-coming talent to seize their moment at a major couldn’t have been much better. While some of the more highly rated younger players—Sascha Zverev, Nick Kyrgios, and Dominic Thiem—failed to live up to the hype, the Australian Open did introduce the world to the unseeded likes of Kyle Edmund and Chung Hyeon, both of whom battled into career-first grand-slam semifinals.
Edmund, who dispatched third seed Grigor Dimitrov in the quarters, will undoubtedly offer British tennis fans some hope in the wake of Murray’s absence, with an offensive game and a huge forehand that is likely to take him into more semifinals to come. Chung became the first South Korean player to reach a grand-slam semis, dumping out both Zverev brothers and his idol Djokovic on the way. The 21-year-old, nicknamed “The Professor” for his thick white glasses, is an excellent athlete in the mold of a younger Djokovic himself: fantastic movement, quick around the court, and a relentless defensive game that runs his opponents ragged.
Though Federer will be looking to dodge the “favorite” tag going into the rest of the 2018 season, and to perhaps encourage some of these new names to rise to the occasion, he’ll likely be quietly fancying his chances in what’s proving to be another golden age for his tennis, after his dominance in the mid-2000s. He might even reclaim the world No. 1 ranking from Nadal for the first time in five years by early March, surpassing Andre Agassi as the oldest man to hold that honor. Wherever 2018 might take him, for now, as Federer said in his post-match interview, “the fairytale continues.”