Roger Federer, at the age of 36, is playing in his 30th grand slam final and, if he wins, will take home his 20th major trophy. Even if he loses, the level of consistent excellence that he has displayed at his advanced age is a marvel. To beat him, Marin Cilic, will need a special performance.
Roger Federer (2) v. Marin Cilic (6)
The women’s final of the 2018 Australian Open was not only rich in drama, it was also a high quality tennis match. The men’s final may not have as much riding on it – neither man will climb to the top of the ATP rankings as a result, nor will either win a maiden slam – it does promise mouthwatering tennis.
Roger Federer has run through the Open without dropping a set:
Round 1: Federer d. Bedene 6-3, 6-4, 6-3
Round 2: Federer d. Struff 6-4, 6-4, 7-6(4)
Round 3: Federer d. Gasquet 6-2, 7-5, 6-4
Round 4: Federer d. Fucovics 6-4, 7-6(3), 6-2
Quarterfinal: Federer d. Berdych 7-6(1), 6-3, 6-4
Semifinal: Federer d. Chung 6-2, 5-2 (Ret.)
The best analog for his performance is the Wimbledon championship of last year. There too he made the final without dropping a set, raised his game when needed to close out matches, and defeated a red-hot Tomas Berdych en route to the final. Federer during that tournament was also never called upon to produce his best tennis. At most he played at 90% of the level he attained during Indian Wells and Miami or during the fifth set against Nadal in last year’s Australian Open final. By the time he was playing Wimbledon, Federer was more confident in his game and, even when not playing as cleanly as he would have liked, he found a way to play his best at the moments in matches when it counted most.
The closest Federer has come to being truly tested during the tournament was during his quarterfinal against Berdych. The Swiss was uncharacteristically shaky on serve (his serving has been sub-par by his standards all tournament) and started the match slowly while the Czech charged into an early lead. Digging deep and playing more aggressively, Federer took the set to a tiebreak where he proceeded to steal the set. That set is instructive for the final. When put under pressure, Federer raised his game. Cilic will be his sternest test yet and he will have to lift his level if he wants to win. The last he played Cilic was at the ATP Finals. Federer was slightly hampered throughout that competition, but the tight scoreline of the early stages of their match, which included Federer dropping the first set, points to how this encounter could play out.
Federer will be confident heading into the final. He boasts an 8-1 lead in his head-to-head against Cilic. The one defeat he suffered was at the 2014 US Open in the semifinals. Cilic not only played lights out tennis, but Federer also completely failed to read his opponent’s serve and was leaden-footed after his five set epic against Gael Monfils in the quarterfinals. Federer himself has regularly referred to how comprehensively Cilic outplayed him in that match. Federer’s frankness points to how little the match has lingered in his mind. He knows he was the inferior player that day. There is no mental scar tissue for Federer in his match up against Cilic the way there was for many years against Nadal, or how there appeared to be when he faced Del Potro during the latter stages of 2017. More relevant to Federer will be his gutsy five set win at Wimbledon in 2016 coming from 2 sets to love down while managing an uncomfortable knee, and his three set win after dropping the first at the World Tour Finals, which he managed while tending to a recurrence of his long standing back issues. Even when struggling with physical difficulties, Federer found a way around the big serving Croat. He will count on his all court game, superior skill, and unrivaled experience on the biggest stages to carry him through to victory, even if he is not able to find his absolute best tennis. More than likely the occasion and the opponent will inspire him to lift his game as well.
Cilic’s journey to a third grand slam final has been nowhere near as straightforward as Federer’s route to his 30th:
Round 1: Cilic d. Pospisil 6-2, 6-2, 4-6, 7-6(5)
Round 2: Cilic d. Sousa 6-1, 7-5, 6-2
Round 3: Cilic d. Harrison 7-6(4), 6-3, 7-6(4)
Round 4: Cilic d. Correno Busta (2)6-7, 6-3, 7-6(0), 7-6(3)
Quarterfinal Cilic d. Nadal 3-6, 6-3, (5)6-7, 6-2, 2-0 (Ret.)
Semifinal: Cilic d. Edmund 6-2, 7-6(4), 6-2
Cilic’s form was good going into the Australian Open and it has only gotten better as he has progressed through the draw. His many tiebreak victories are not surprising given that one of his main weapons is a booming serve, however, the fact that he has played 8 tiebreaks already in the tournament and won six of those will be comforting going into the final against Federer since at least one set of that contest is likely to end in one.
One of the keys to Cilic’s success has been his movement. Federer is still the superior mover around the court, but if Cilic can hang with him and use his power to force Federer onto the defensive, over time, he may be able to wear the Swiss down. Short of completely blasting Federer off the court – nearly impossible on any surface that is not clay – that is Cilic’s best route to victory. Federer will need to remain solid on serve and utilize his superior variety of shot to neutralize Cilic’s power and take initiative in rallies. Perhaps Federer’s greatest weapon against Cilic is his low slice. The play that worked wonders against Andy Roddick will be even more effective against Cilic since, in addition to moving him to an awkward court position, it has the added benefit of being incredibly difficult for the much taller Corat to retrieve.
Expect Cilic to come out all guns blazing and Federer to soak up the barrage, return it with interest and, while never running away with the match, manage to find a way to win the most important points. For Cilic to have any chance, he will need to win the first set. Federer does not have the same burden, but his chances of winning will be helped immeasurably if he can gain an early lead.
Prediction: Federer in 3 or 4. At least one tiebreak.