It’s a shame that two retirements in the final rounds impacted the men’s draw, before setting us up for a repeat of last year’s Wimbledon final as Marin Cilic takes on defending champion Roger Federer in today’s Australian Open final.
First Rafael Nadal went out in the quarters to Cilic, and then Hyeon Chung lost the battle of generations in the second semifinal on Friday, to ensure that Federer would be vying for a repeat from last year today.
Federer is not only looking for a record equaling sixth title in Melbourne, he’s also looking to become the first ever male player to win 20 Grand Slam titles, extending his lead over second-placed Nadal (16) to four majors in the all-time list.
That he’s on the verge of achieving that approaching 37 years of age is a testament to his class and longevity that have given him the most illustrious tennis career of all time in the men’s game.
But before we start waxing lyrical over the addition to Federer’s bulging trophy cabinet, there’s a final to be played, for which the Swiss is the overwhelming favourite.
To put things into perspective, Cilic has only won one out of his nine meetings with Federer. That however came en route to his only Grand Slam title as he overpowered Federer in straight sets at the US Open semifinal in 2014.
Cilic did come close again in the 2016 Wimbledon quarterfinal that Federer eventually won 6-3 in the fifth after a tense fourth set tiebreak, but the Croat has mostly been at the receiving end of one-sided demolition acts against the Swiss.
Perhaps the most agonising among these was last year’s 6-3, 6-1, 6-4 loss in the Wimbledon final. Not just because of how lopsided it turned out to be, but also because last year Cilic was touted as the outside challenger to Federer’s Wimbledon surge.
In Australia, however, Cilic wasn’t among the top contenders going into the first slam of the year. That he’s made it to the final is a combination of the draw opening up nicely for him, and the win against an injury affected Nadal. However, even during the first three sets, when the Spaniard was fit, Cilic did give him a lot of trouble, and could easily have gone 2-1 up after the third set tie-breaker.
But today he would be playing against himself more than Federer – a contest the sixth seed abysmally failed at Wimbledon last year.
Cilic, playing his top game, might still not be enough to beat Federer, but it will promise everyone an enthralling contest. Alternatively, it could be another straight set rout for him, should the occasion get the better of him again.
The plan for Cilic is simple: serve big with a high first serve percentage, use the powerful forehand to capitalise on any lose returns, and be the aggressor when Federer is serving. The problem: its execution when a Grand Slam title is on the line against a player who has won 19 of those.
Federer, of course, has been in a similar position multiple times in his career – an underdog looking up to the greatest player of all time at the biggest stage in tennis – and almost always, in the past 15 years, the Swiss has come out on top.
Of course his run this year has been nothing like the one he had last year, where he beat four top 10 players – Tomas Berdych, Kei Nishikori, Stanislas Wawinka and Nadal – to win his then 18th Grand Slam title.
Last year, Federer was an outsider – perhaps for the first time in a decade and a half on a non-clay major – but this year he was the firm favourite.
And so, while on paper the toughest challenge he has faced en route to the final is the quarterfinal against Berdych, he looked set to overcome all before him even if the draw would’ve played out according to the seeds.
This is similar to Nadal’s US Open win last year, where he didn’t even play a top 25 player throughout the tournament before ending up winning it.
The resurgence of Federer – and Nadal – and these back to back tournaments in which they haven’t been challenged is owing to the absence – from their peak form, if not the actual tournament – of the other usual suspects Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Wawrinka, and the failure of the younger lot in converting their impressive showings during the rest of the tour at the majors.
A win for Federer today would further extend his numbers as the most illustrious player of all time, reinforcing him as the man to beat over the past 12 months, even if he mightn’t be able to surpass Nadal in the official rankings.
However, a win for Cilic would put him in the Wawrinka-Murray tier – an elusive section of players that have managed to win multiple slams in a decade and a half dominated by all-time greats Djokovic, Nadal and Federer.