It was the cry of “chum jetze!” at the start of the fifth set that told the story.
Roger Federer was on his way to a 20th Grand Slam title. He was miles away from the finish line, but he saw the path clearing ahead of him.
For a set, he had been strolling (the first); for a set, he had been brilliant and brutal (the third), but for two sets, he had been bullied and battered. Marin Cilic was doing what many men have tried to do but failed miserably: he was trying to make the Mighty Federer look beatable in a Grand Slam final.
Cilic made a good fist of it, but in the end he could not stop the freight train coming towards him. Federer in pursuit of major silverware is a terrifying sight, and when he yelled out in Swiss-German (“chum jetze” means “come on now”), he was not to be beaten. After three hours and three minutes, Federer was crowned as Australian Open champion for a record-equaling sixth time in his career. He had overpowered Cilic 6-2 6-7(5) 6-3 3-6 6-1.
The cry that said it all marked the end of Cilic’s challenge. For the whole of the fourth set and the opening game of the fifth, he had run Federer ragged. He was blasting the champion off the court, and Switzerland’s hero had no counter for the power. But when, somehow, he fended off the second of two break points, he roared himself on. Two points later, he had the first game of the set on the scoreboard, and Cilic was done.
“I’m so happy, it’s unbelievable,” Federer said, trying really hard to keep his emotions in check. “I’m happy it’s over, but winning is just an absolute dream come true. The fairytale continues for me. After the great year I had last year, it’s incredible.”
But by the time he was thanking his team, he could hold back the tears no more. He had survived an incredible battle, and at the age of 36 had rewritten the record books yet again. This was beyond anything he could have imagined, and he was in floods.
As Federer and Cilic settled to their task under the Rod Laver Arena roof on a scorching hot Melbourne Sunday, there was little hint of the drama to come. Cilic, who had only beaten his rival once in nine previous meetings, was as nervous as a kitten, while Federer was in his element.
After a handful of minutes the defending champion had raced to a 3-0 lead, while Cilic had won four points and was already two breaks down. Federer was cool in the heat of battle, and he was utterly focused on the business of crushing the life out of his opponent.
Cilic, meanwhile, was all over the shop. At first, he looked nervous but after four games, he just looked lost. The world’s greatest front-runner had shot out of the blocks and sped into the distance. Cilic was so far behind, he could barely see Federer’s dust, much less eat it.
As Federer wrapped up the opening set in the briefest of brief 24 minutes, Cilic had to find the reset button. Like a computer on the blink, Cilic needed to reboot in the hope that he could get just some of the component parts of his game working properly.
But when he did, when he finally got that forehand working, he was pushing Federer out of the way in the charge for the title.
It took time for Cilic to work up a head of steam and he was within centimetres of losing the second set, but the huge Croat kept the faith. He kept doing what he knew he should, and kept hoping that at some point it would start to bring him rewards.
Federer had a break point that, had he been allowed to take it, would have left him serving for the second set. Cilic saved it with a second serve ace. Ratten! (It’s Swiss-German for ‘rats!’).
Maybe Federer was still thinking about that missed opportunity, maybe he was a little tight serving to stay in the set (although the thought of the GOAT – Greatest Of All Time – getting tense seems laughable) – who knows. Fed fluffed and flapped his way through his next serve, offering up a couple of double faults and presenting Cilic with a set point. He could not take that one, but when another couple came along in the tiebreak, he smacked home a smash and it was a set apiece.
Living legends are not prone to carelessness and come the third set, Fed had rootled around in his racquet bag to find his superhero cape, the one that gives him super powers in a crisis. Losing a set may not have been that much of a disaster, but for a bloke chasing history, it was best to be on the safe side.
Tightening the screws on his service, Federer upped his accuracy to 80 per cent on the first delivery and waited for his moment to pounce. That came in the sixth game – he attacked for a point and Cilic flapped for a couple of points. That was the break. That was the set right there.
While Cilic was trying to clear his head, he took his eye off the ball and let his serve slip away from him – Federer was a break to the good at the start of the fourth set. But then the superhero had another mortal moment, and as his focus blurred ever so slightly so he dropped his serve. Blimey. How did that happen?
Perhaps he was allowing his eye to stray to the trophy at the side of the court. Perhaps he had made the schoolboy error of looking at the finish line before the race had been run. His serve disintegrated and he looked – dare we say it? – old and slow. Five games in a row ran away from him as Cilic thumped his forehand and forced that fifth set.
And then Roger roared, and history beckoned.