After being fed a steady diet of soporific Murray vs Djokovic reruns for half of the past eight years, tennis fans the world over were bestowed an Australian Open final truly worth savouring—and in the case of us North Americans, sacrificing sleep for—in 2017. This year, the victorious half of the duo involved in that showpiece has his sights set on a record-tying sixth Australian Open win. He enters the final without dropping a set all tournament. Standing between Roger Federer—to give a name to the anonymous achiever—and a spotless defence of his title is a certain Marin Cilic.
The last time either of these two players reached a Grand Slam final, Federer coughed up a grand total of eight games over the course of a match that Cilic, blotting out the first 20 minutes, was never really competitive in. Is there cause to believe that the 2018 Australian Open final will end in similar fashion to the debacle at SW19, with a disconsolate Cilic left licking the wounds of a heavy defeat? Or, will the world No.2 win again, albeit less decisively? Might Cilic instead rain on Federer’s 20th major-winning parade? Questions, questions.
The Small Matter of Margins
A tendency that Cilic has in common with many elite players of his size and build is that of straddling the boundary between being a world beater and a counterfeit version of the genuine article within a relatively short space of time. Which is to say that over the duration of a set, match, or tournament, the best stretches of Cilic’s form sometimes make one wonder if anyone in the world could possibly take the required number of sets off the Croat in a single encounter to beat him; during his untidier phases of play, one can be at a loss for words to explain how he made it past the first round of the tournament in question, especially if he has reached a stage significantly closer in time to its closing day.
Any neutral spectator, irrespective of how knowledgeable they are about the sport, could watch a replay of Cilic dismantling Federer in the semi-final round of the 2014 US Open or pushing him to the brink of defeat in the last eight of 2016’s Wimbledon and think him capable of humbling the Swiss Maestro numerously. Yet Federer has prevailed in eight out of the nine fixtures played between the pair, at least in some part because Cilic finds it difficult to sustain his very highest level—which is the only level that will do against Federer—for multiple sets in succession.
At this year’s Australian Open, Cilic has managed the fluctuations in his form about as convincingly as one could expect. In the first round, he did well to prevent a four set match against Vasek Pospisil from going the distance, for the Canadian was playing his usual trick of performing ten times above his puzzlingly low ranking when he meets a top player—just think back to how he flummoxed Andy Murray at Indian Wells last year. The sixth seed beat João Sousa and Ryan Harrison handily in rounds two and three, then came out on top in another four setter that could (and perhaps really should) have gone to five sets. In that episode, Cilic survived Pablo Carreño Busta’s weak attempt to serve out the third set, then waltzed past the dispirited Spaniard in two consecutive tiebreaks. One round later, Cilic was staring down the barrel of a sixth defeat in a row to Rafael Nadal. The jubilation Nadal displayed at winning the third set suggested that Cilic was in for a hiding in the fourth. But in an unexpected twist, Cilic turned the match around and well… we all know the rest.
Cilic didn’t have to work drastically harder for his semi-final victory over Kyle Edmund than Federer did to subdue a wounded Hyeon Chung on Friday. In fact, Federer has barely strained himself at all in winning six best-of-five-set matches in ten days. I think he might have benefited from being tested more. If Cilic gets hot in the final, it is far from certain that the 36-year-old Swiss has it in him to douse the flames produced by his 6’6″ opponent’s service and groundstroke rockets. Of course, there’s every chance that no such effort will be required from Federer, such are the vagaries of Cilic’s point-to-point playing standard. In any event, I hope Federer has his fire extinguisher at the ready.
Where Federer enjoys a sizeable advantage going into the final is the mental side of things. He has featured in 29 Grand Slam finals over the last fourteen-and-a-half years and faced in those matches players of all stripes. On many occasions, Federer was burdened with the task of outgunning untiring defensive juggernauts: Messrs. Nadal, Djokovic, Hewitt and Murray. On others, he has had to fell tall, long-levered sluggers of Cilic’s hue—the del Potros, Soderlings and Philippoussises of this world—and tame players cast in a similar mould like Fernando Gonzalez and Andy Roddick. Federer has seen it all—of that I have no doubt. The fact that he has won 19 of his 29 major finals doesn’t hurt either.
Cilic, by contrast, is hours away from playing what will be only his third slam final. In the 2014 US Open title match, he swept aside Kei Nishikori, a worthy foe on his day but one rendered exhausted by the sensational hat-trick of upsets he had to score over Raonic, Wawrinka and Djokovic just to get to Cilic. Apropos the 2017 Wimbledon final, the less said, the better. For reasons known to everyone who forced themselves through it, Cilic was guilty of underperforming in the extreme. The media filled in anyone who didn’t by skewering Cilic for the shallowness of his pain threshold. Consequently, murmurings about the fragility of Cilic’s big match disposition still creep into the discussion regarding his chances in tomorrow’s final.
Although I haven’t written off Cilic as a total basket case in high-pressure situations, it’s impossible not to concede that a lack of poise could prove to be his undoing on Sunday. It’s plain to see what happens to Cilic when nerves get the better of him: he becomes a feckless slowpoke. If that description strikes you as harsh, notice how at the worst of times his service routine decelerates to the point where viewers are subjected to every anxious twitch of the foot, superfluous ball bounce and agitated grimace in real time. Once the jittery Cilic finally finishes with his pre-serve rituals, delivers the ball to his opponent, and engages in a rally, the unforced errors erupt in droves. I use such disparaging terms precisely because I know that the real Cilic is many orders of magnitude better than that wreck of a sportsman who collapsed in the Wimbledon final. And I want him to show it as emphatically as possible.
Lightning Can Strike Twice
Ever since he started winning them, Federer has proven remarkably resistant to upsets at Grand Slams, hence his unmatched streaks of 23 semi-final and 36 quarter-final appearances at the majors. The passage of time has eroded this immunity somewhat—Federer has slipped up here and there against players beneath his class such as Sergiy Stakhovsky, Tommy Robredo, Andreas Seppi and Ernests Gulbis—but overall, his ability to dodge early-round bullets remains fairly intact.
On the other hand, Federer’s history with seven players belonging to the ‘good-but-not quite-great’ tier—a tier comfortably below his own—is suspect by comparison. With respect to this category of player, Federer has lost to Cilic, Marat Safin, Robin Soderling and Stan Wawrinka at Grand Slams. This quartet has gotten the better of Federer only once each at the slams, so let’s assign them to their own subset: ‘Group A.’ Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Juan Martin del Potro fit snugly into the aforementioned echelon as well but can also claim the distinction of earning two Grand Slam wins against Federer. Therefore, their names can be placed into a ‘Group B.’ As it stands, Cilic is the only player that I would put any money on to graduate from ‘Group A’ (assuming Wawrinka is done).
The mere existence of a ‘Group B’ is sufficient to validate the idea that for Federer at Grand Slams, lightning can strike twice. Cilic playing at his very, very best is a far superior player to Tsonga and Berdych (with all respect to them) and leastways, the equal of Juan Martin del Potro. I wouldn’t deem it beyond Cilic to beat Federer for a second time if he plays the sort of tennis he did during their 2014 US Open face-off. If particularly inspired, he can finish the job in straight sets. More realistically, he can do it in four. Why so? Cilic is battle-hardened, having ridden a tough rode to arrive at his first Australian Open final. Furthermore, he is determined to expunge the image some observers have of him as being a pushover, and by relation a virtual walkover for Federer. I believe in him, and I hope he does too.