MELBOURNE, Australia — There were tears, but that was to be expected from Roger Federer at the Australian Open.
In the end, the most remarkable part of his 20th Grand Slam singles title was that it came as no surprise. Not even at age 36 in a sport where the spoils have generally been reserved for a much younger crowd.
Federer, like Serena Williams, has redefined the limits. After going nearly five years without a major title, he has now won three of the last five in a phase of his career when he insists that he would have been content with just one more.
“I’ve won three Slams in 12 months,” he said. “I can’t believe it myself.”
On Sunday, under a closed roof in Rod Laver Arena, Federer secured his sixth Australian Open by recovering his mojo in time to hold off Marin Cilic, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 3-6, 6-1.
Federer is the oldest man to win the Open since one of his role models, Ken Rosewall, in 1972. It was played on grass then in the much more intimate setting of the Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club, with no retractable roofs in sight.
Though seeded No. 2 behind Rafael Nadal, Federer was the clear favorite coming into this year’s tournament based on his hardcourt results in 2017 and the fragile physical state of his traditional archrivals. Still, he resisted that label.
“I don’t think a 36-year-old should be a favorite of a tournament,” Federer said before the Open began.
But he proved the pundits correct, defending the title he won much more unexpectedly last year, when he was returning from a six-month break to heal a lingering knee problem.
That surprise victory, earned after a series of marathon matches, meant so much to him in part because he was playing free of big expectations for a change.
But Sunday night’s five-set win over the sixth-seeded Cilic resonated deeply, too.
Federer broke down in tears — not for the first time — during the trophy ceremony in Rod Laver Arena as Laver himself was taking pictures with his phone from the front row.
“The fairy tale continues, for us, for me,” Federer said, looking toward his team and his family in the players’ box.
“After the great year I had last year,” he said, hesitating and fighting to keep his composure, “it’s incredible.”
He continued to struggle, even after he was done speaking as the crowd roared while he and Cilic posed for pictures.
This has been one of the finest late-career runs in any sport. And though Federer did not lose a set on his way to Sunday’s final, Cilic pushed him to a fifth with his power baseline game and with Federer’s nerves and serves betraying him in patches. He put only 36 percent of his first serves in play in the fourth set.
What had started as a rout, with Federer winning the first set in just 24 minutes, became much more complex, in part because of Federer’s anxiety and in part because Cilic adjusted to the indoor conditions after playing and practicing outdoors all tournament.
But Cilic was ultimately too inconsistent and not quite opportunistic enough while Federer, using his backhand chip to fine effect, was often able to put the tall Croatian in body positions and zones of the court where he was forced to be subtle instead of forceful.
Still, it was close, and with the match on the line, Federer fought off two break points on his serve in the first game of the fifth set and then broke Cilic in the next game. He challenged a second serve at 30-30 that turned out to be a double fault, then hit a deep return on the next point that Cilic failed to handle.
Federer held serve to go up by 3-0 in the next tense game and then accelerated to the finish line, one he has crossed more than any man at the major championships that define careers, even more so now than in Rosewall and Laver’s era.
Neither Rosewall nor Laver played a Grand Slam final under a closed roof, and though it was not raining on Sunday, temperatures in Melbourne surged again, hitting 103 degrees Fahrenheit (39 degrees Celsius) in the late afternoon.
Though the final was to begin at 7:30 p.m., when the weather was slightly cooler, the organizers determined one hour before the match that the combination of high temperatures and humidity called for them to put in effect their extreme-heat policy and play the final indoors.
“I was surprised to hear they had the heat rule in place for a night match,” Federer said. “I never heard that before. When I arrived to the courts, I was totally ready to play outdoors.”
Both players said they were not consulted about the decision but were informed in advance. Federer practiced indoors, and Cilic chose to stick with practicing outdoors and then paid the price.
“With the roof closed, it was way, way cooler than I expected,” Cilic said. “That was very, very difficult, especially for the final, to be in that kind of situation.”
He questioned the decision afterward but said he did not argue about it. Some former players, including the Australian star Pat Cash, cried foul, but Tennis Australia officials defended the move. Despite soaring temperatures for a few days during the first week, officials said, Sunday night was the first time all tournament that the threshold on their heat and humidity index had been reached.
The grueling, three-set women’s final on Saturday night, in which Caroline Wozniacki defeated Simona Halep, was played on a slightly cooler, less humid evening with the roof open. ESPN reported that after the match was over, Halep spent several hours in the hospital being treated for dehydration.
Darren Cahill, Halep’s coach, said on Monday that she was “O.K., and on her way home” to Romania.
Tennis Australia officials said Halep’s health problems had not factored into the decision to close the roof on Sunday.
Federer trains regularly in the heat in Dubai, but playing conditions would certainly have been slower with the roof open.
His indoor record is now 273-65; Cilic’s is 109-55. But Federer was still edgy as the 3-hour-3-minute match played out.
“I think that’s why I was so bloody emotional again at the end, because I was thinking about the outcome all day,” he said. “During the first set. During the second. During the third. During the fourth. ‘How would I feel if I lost? How would I feel if I won?’ And it just wouldn’t stop, and I think that’s why this match was particularly difficult today.
“It reminded me a little bit of 2006, when I really got to the finals in a great way and played that match against Marcos Baghdatis that was also nerve-racking. I was the big favorite going in, and in the end you win and you are so relieved.”
Federer cried after beating Baghdatis in the final and receiving the trophy from Laver. He choked up again after being beaten by Nadal in the 2009 final, saying, “God, it’s killing me.” He eventually backed away from the microphone and was consoled by Nadal.
But Federer has not needed much consolation of late as he glides on at an age by which nearly all of the great men’s players have moved on. He said it helped that his recurring back problems did not affect him here after troubling him post-Wimbledon last season.
“I was a bit worried at the end of the year,” he said. “I was relieved that after vacation, it was better. I think that’s why I was able to win here.”
Federer said that, unusually, he did not take any anti-inflammatory pills during the tournament. “I know guys my age who took one every day,” he said.
Federer tied Novak Djokovic and Roy Emerson for the most Australian men’s singles titles. He is 9-1 against Cilic, whom he defeated in last year’s Wimbledon final in straight sets.
During that match, Cilic, suffering from deep foot blisters of his own, cried in frustration during a changeover at his inability to compete at full strength.
He and Federer have grown closer since that match. In September, they were part of the winning European team in the inaugural Laver Cup, an event created by Federer and his management company. In late November, they ended up vacationing on the same island in the Maldives, where they socialized and even practiced together twice.
“We were both looking for a hitting partner, and it happened that we were there,” Federer said. “It was the weirdest thing.”
On Sunday, they exchanged tennis blows in a much more public place. And as has been the case so often in the last 15 years, the man who ended up as the champion was Federer, somehow still hungry for more and still moved when it comes.
“I like to care,” he said. “It’s good I can care about these matches.”
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