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.