Breaking Barriers Down Under

WASHINGTON, January 29, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)

The 2018 Australian Open fortnight down under wrapped up Sunday with an extraordinary display of vintage Roger Federer for the Rod Laver Arena crowd – and a world-wide audience watching on TV – to enjoy and appreciate on a hot summer Melbourne evening.

After three hours and three minutes filled with much drama and excitement, and with the roof closed thanks to an outside temperature of 38º Celsius at the start of the match, it became evident that Switzerland’s hero didn’t want to disappoint anyone: himself, his family, his team, legendary Hall of Famer – and arena namesake – Rod Laver, who was in attendance among the packed house, or his legion of devoted fans.

With his five-set triumph over Marin Cilic by scores of 6-2, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, not only did the No. 2 seed Federer capture his sixth career Australian Open title (joining Novak Djokovic and Roy Emerson), it was also his 20th career Grand Slam singles title overall. He became just the fourth player – man or woman – to win 20 or more major titles, and it increased his lead in major titles over World No. 1 Rafael Nadal to 20-16.

Wozniacki Finally Rid Of Grand Slam Doubts

Federer’s latest triumph in his 30th Grand Slam final came one day after No. 2 seed Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark finally made her dream come true by winning her first Grand Slam title, beating No. 1 seed Simona Halep of Romania, 7-6 (2), 3-6, 6-4, in a tense and very grueling women’s singles final that was characterized by many extended rallies. The victory, which came in Wozniacki’s third Grand Slam final over the past decade and 43rd appearance in a Grand Slam singles tournament, earned her the new No. 1 ranking, too. Now, she no longer has to wear the label of “best player never to win a Slam” ever again or answer questions from the media about when she’s going to win her first Grand Slam.

During her post-match press conference, the 27-year-old Wozniacki quipped, “I think that’s one of the most positive things about all this: I’m never going to get that question again. I’m just waiting for the question, ‘When are you going to win the second one?'”

Meanwhile, Federer was labeled as the Australian Open men’s singles pre-tournament favorite, in light of the tentative physical condition of many of his rivals, including Nadal, Djokovic, and Stan Wawrinka – plus Andy Murray, who was missing in action following his recent hip surgery. Federer shrugged it off by saying before his first match, “I don’t think a 36-year-old should be a favorite of a tournament.”

By winning his second consecutive Australian Open title – both of them in five sets – Federer became the oldest man to win it since Australian Ken Rosewall, one of his role models, won in 1972 when it was played on grass at Kooyong. And, it shouldn’t go unnoticed that since tennis’s Open Era began 50 years ago, Federer’s incredible 20 major titles represents a remarkable 10 percent of the total majors that have taken place.

From The Maldives To Melbourne

After the No. 6-seeded Cilic netted a two-fisted backhand on match point at 0-40, Federer raised his hands in victory and soaked in the adoration of the fans inside Rod Laver Arena, who gave him a well-deserved standing ovation. I imagine much of the world applauded with him, too. He and Cilic, who recently practiced together while both were on vacation in the Maldives, shared a warm, friendly embrace at the net before walking off the court together.

While Cilic came up short against Federer, again, as he did last summer when he lost the Wimbledon final, it should be noted that in eight of his last 14 Grand Slams, the Croatian reached the quarterfinals or better – including three finals. He very deservingly moves up to No. 3 in the new Emirates ATP rankings this week after beating Nadal in the quarterfinals and reaching the final. “It’s been the best two weeks of my life,” said Cilic in accepting the runner-up trophy.

Then, as Federer gave his victory speech during the trophy presentation, the champion was overcome by emotion in describing what the journey that culminated in another Grand Slam title meant to him. “The fairy tale continues, for us, for me,” he said, clutching the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup champion’s trophy, as he glanced toward his team and his family sitting in the players’ box above the court. “After the great year I had last year, it’s incredible.”

Certainly, when one sees emotion filling up inside Federer – the quivering bottom lip, the tears welling up in his eyes, even the cracking sound of his voice – it humbles all of us. After all, Federer showed the world he’s only human.

Federer Seals 20th Grand Slam Title

As we saw throughout the entirety of the fortnight, Federer puts a lot of energy into his tennis – and his single-handed backhand remains a thing of beauty. He plays with so much enthusiasm and appreciation for the sport and carries so much history on his racket with each major he plays. Everyone wants to see Federer win – and, lately, it seems, he’s been winning often. After nearly five years without winning a major title, Federer’s won three of the last four Grand Slams he’s played in and three of the last five Grand Slams overall.

“During the match, I constantly thought about the fact that I could reach 20,” said Federer during his post-match press conference. “I was nervous the whole day. I thought about what would happen if I lost. If I had got broken at the start of the fifth, there would have been no coming back from that.

“I’ve won three Slams in 12 months. I can’t believe it myself.”

Yet, it seems, Federer does it so lightly all the time, like taking a lovely walk in the park. Honestly, I don’t think most people realize how much of himself he puts into both the mental and physical aspects of his brilliantly-honed tennis game.

“He’s a caring man, a very emotional man. It’s all wrapped up in this sheen exterior,” said David Law of BBC 5 Live, co-host of The Tennis Podcast, late Sunday night, in assessing what’s made Federer so successful for so long.

New York Times tennis columnist Christopher Clarey, a 25-year veteran of covering the Australian Open, tweeted that the most remarkable part of seeing Federer win his 20th Grand Slam singles title “was that – even at age 36 – it came as no surprise.”

Asked by reporters what makes Federer the extraordinary player he is, Cilic said, “I would say first the passion to compete, season after season, especially at this high level. Then, also being able to challenge himself first physically and then mentally, as well, to be at the top almost every single week.”

Now that Federer has added another addition to his Grand Slam title collection, further cementing his legacy as the greatest of all time, it becomes fair game to ask these two questions: How much longer might he continue playing? and What goals are left for him to achieve?

Although Federer didn’t specifically indicate during Sunday night’s trophy ceremony whether he would be coming back Melbourne to defend his AO title in 2019, I think it’s safe to assume that Federer intends to play as long as he’s physically able to do so – and, just as importantly, as long as he continues to enjoy playing tennis. Now that Federer trails Nadal by just 155 points for the top spot in the ATP rankings, making a concentrated run to become World No. 1, again, may be a prime motivator for him.

Looking back on the AO fortnight

Among many highlights of this year’s Australian Open, here are a few which resonated with me:

Angelique Kerber, who started the year with 10 consecutive wins following a dismal 2017, came within a single point of reaching the women’s final before she lost 9-7 in the third set to Simona Halep in a memorable semifinal. Now, the German returns to the Top 10 at No. 9. She’s regained her love of playing tennis.

• Although foot blisters cut short his semifinal against Roger Federer, 21-year-old South Korean Hyeon Chung was one of the hottest players for five rounds with impressive wins over both No. 4 seed Alexander Zverev and 12-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic.

• Nobody expected Elise Mertens of Belgium to make a deep run into second week of the AO. However, she reached the semifinals before losing to eventual champion Caroline Wozniacki. She improved her world ranking by 17 places and is now No. 20.

• With Andy Murray recovering from hip surgery, all eyes in Great Britain were upon young Kyle Edmund, who showed much poise and potential in winning five consecutive matches to reach the semifinals before losing to Marin Cilic.

• Unheralded American Mackenzie McDonald, a former NCAA singles champion at UCLA, nearly upset No. 3 seed Grigor Dimitrov in an early-round match, before losing 8-6 in the fifth set. And little-known American Lauren Davis nearly upset Simona Halep in the third round before losing three match points and bowing 15-13 in the third set. Otherwise, it was an overall lackluster performance for the Americans.

• Finally, here’s what we learned about this year’s Australian Open champions, Roger Federer and Caroline Wozniacki: It’s pure passion which ignites Federer’s incredible drive to keep going and to keep improving as a player and – just as importantly – as a person. As for Wozniacki, a terrific player and athletic who has more than paid her dues, perhaps, she won her first Grand Slam because it was finally meant to be.

About the author

Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.