Roger Federer, the ageless immortal, further secured his place atop tennis’ mountaintop on Sunday with his 20th major win, a victory at the Australian Open over Marin Cilic that started easy, turned into a dogfight, and ended in relentless, crushing five-set triumph. The final score: 6-2, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 3-6, 6-1.
The 36-year-old Federer cruised into this final, his 30th at the major level, with relative ease, dominating younger players and catching veterans at their worst. He didn’t drop a set the entire tournament heading into Sunday’s final. Cilic, meanwhile, playing in only his third grand slam final — he won the 2014 U.S. Open — waited until almost the last possible moment to seize the stage, but when he did, he put Federer through a brief but nerve-wracking street fight. It was a stark departure from last year’s Wimbledon final, when an injured Cilic couldn’t put up any kind of fight and lost to Federer in straight sets.
Federer won the first set with little trouble, 6-2, then barely lost his grip on the second set, losing a tiebreaker 7-6 (7-5). A 6-3 victory in the third set put Federer on the cusp of sixth Australian Open and his 20th grand slam title.
It wasn’t until the fourth set that Cilic found his footing, rallying from a 3-1 deficit and a potential two-break deficit to win five straight games to force a final, decisive fifth set. The seven-year age difference between the two men became apparent in the fourth, as Federer let his foot off the gas and gave Cilic just enough room to begin a decisive rally. Federer’s serves drifted wide and soft, and Cilic finally unleashed a big forehand that chased Federer off the court, point after point.
Federer began the fifth set with what could have been a crucial mistake: failing to challenge a call that would have ended the first game in his favor. He ended up holding serve, breaking a streak of two straight lost serves. Federer then carved a huge chunk out of Cilic’s momentum by breaking the second game and winning the third to go up 3-0. The two traded quick service wins, putting Federer up 4-1.
But there’s a reason that Federer had won five consecutive five-set matches coming into Sunday. This time around, with the finish line in sight, he didn’t lose focus, didn’t lose concentration on the task at hand. His first serves began popping once again, and he anticipated Cilic’s booming returns with an edge he hadn’t shown in the fourth set.
In the set’s fifth game, with Cilic serving, Federer appeared totally in control, draining Cilic of hope with all the relentless effort of a man crushing a grape. Federer then hammered through the final game, winning the set 6-1 and leaving no doubt that he’s still the greatest.
Federer is the first man to win 20 grand slam titles, joining Margaret Court (24), Serena Williams (23), and Steffi Graf (22) as members of the 20-win club. And the way he played Sunday, Federer might have a few more big wins still ahead.