Roger Federer defeats Marin Cilic 6-2, 6-7, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 to Win 6th Australian Open, 20th Grand Slam
The draw broke perfectly for Federer and he cruised to the Finals without dropping a set. Nevertheless, it was far from easy for him in the Final. Cilic had already defeated Rafael Nadal in 5 sets in the Quarterfinals. He almost beat Federer in the Final too. He would have beaten both legends in the same Grand Slam, a feat that only Juan Martin del Potro has pulled off. Cilic was certainly a worthy opponent. He had already won a Major with his title at the 2014 U.S. Open. Moreover, he had annihilated Federer in the Semi-Finals on route to that title. As a footnote to that match, Federer was drained from a five setter and his body had clearly not recovered before facing Cilic. Nevertheless, Cilic is a legitimately tough opponent. It took Federer five sets to defeat Cilic at the 2016 Quarterfinals of Wimbledon. Federer beat Cilic in last year’s Wimbledon Final in straight sets but Cilic could hardly move because of a blister that formed during the match. When both players are healthy and playing well, it has been a competitive matchup despite Federer’s 8-1 record against Cilic going into the match.
Similar to last year’s Wimbledon Final, the Australian Open Final looked like it would be a breeze after the first set. The roof was closed before the match because of weather conditions. As the broadcast noted, indoor conditions favored Federer. Cilic was broken immediately when he missed an easy overhand smash. He clearly showed nerves in the first set. He missed his first serves and completely missed on his groundstrokes. When he landed his second serves, they were predictable and Federer crushed them. Cilic was also fussing with his rackets and sent them to be restrung throughout the match. The distraction with the rackets appeared to throw him off a bit. He changed rackets during the 3rd point of his second service game in the first set and was promptly broken a second time. As such, Federer cruised to an easy 6-2 set in just 24 minutes.
The second set was much more competitive and indicative of the play in the match to follow. Cilic settled down, found his powerful forehand and groundstrokes, and varied up his second serve. Federer needed to save 2 early break points on his first service game. Cilic fought off break points on 3 separate service games. If he was broken in any game and fell down 2 sets to 0, the match would have been basically over and a bore. Instead, he fought back hard. Near the end of the set, Federer double faulted to hand Cilic a set point. He also laid in an average second serve and soft forehand return during that break point but Cilic blew the gifts by hitting it into the net. It appeared he squandered an opportunity to make it a competitive match. Nevertheless, Cilic took the second set in a close tie break. However, Federer’s serve was not broken in that set so CIlic still did not prove he was a serious threat to win the match at that point. It looked like a temporary setback for Federer. The third set was well played and each player was holding serve. Eventually, Cilic had a lapse in his service game. Up 30-0, he misfired on an easy forehand then committed three additional unforced errors to get broken and fall behind 4-2. Federer held his service games to win the set 6-3.
In the fourth set, Cilic was broken immediately. Moreover, he double faulted in his second service game to set up a double break. At this moment, it looked like Federer was about to roll to victory. However, Cilic dug deep and saved the break. Next, he finally broke Federer and did it easily without Federer winning a point to tie the set 3-3. Up 4-3, Cilic had double break point and a chance to break Federer on consecutive service games. On the second break point, he smashed a backhand on Federer’s second serve that just went long. It appeared he may have squandered a golden opportunity to take the set but he broke Federer in that game anyway and went up 5-3. He would win his service game easily to close out the set 6-3.
Cilic had the momentum and Federer on the ropes at the beginning of the 5th set. Up 40-30, Federer failed to challenge a Cilic shot that went long. It could have been a fatal mistake because Cilic would get to a break point. Nevertheless, Federer held on and won the game on a great backhand. In the following game, he challenged Cilic’s second serve that went long, but was initially called in, for a double fault to set up break point. He immediately converted the break point. Those two games were the final turning point in the match. Moreover, Cilic finally looked fatigued. He had a more difficult journey to the Final and played 6 more hours of tennis. If the two games went the other way and Cilic was up 2-0, he would have been in great position to prevail. Of course, Federer was up a break in the fourth set too. For insurance, he easily broke Cilic for a second time in the set easily to go up 5-1. Federer had one more service game to close it out but the match was virtually over with the second break. Federer wins the Grand Slam in an epic match. Cilic can only think of what could have been if he did not come out nervous in the first set or converted on other opportunities throughout the match, especially the first game of the 5th set.
With the Australian Open title, Federer has won 6 titles at Melbourne. He tied Novak Djokovic for the record for Australian Open titles. He also reached an unthinkable 20th Men’s Grand Slam titles. In addition, he defended a Major title for the first time since he defended his U.S. Open title in 2008. In his prime, he rewrote the record books. Similar to Serena Williams in the Women’s draw, he has also redefined what is possible for a tennis player in his 30s. He has tied the record for Majors for a male tennis player over the age of 30 at 4. Although he has fought off Father Time, he is still at an advanced age and any Major title from this point on could be his last. As a fan, it allows me to appreciate each one a lot more than I did a decade ago. Of course, Federer is far from being done. He definitely looks like he will contend for more Majors. With each Grand Slam win, he also makes it exponentially more difficult for Nadal to catch him. With his 20th, he increases his lead on Nadal back to 4. On the other hand, Federer intentionally skipped the French Open last year and I expect him to do so again this year. The clay courts are slower and the rallies are longer and much more grueling. Federer has aged gracefully because he has learned to end points quickly. Obviously, the clay courts are not as conducive to that style of play. I do not think he even considers playing the clay court season or the French Open if the virtually unbeatable on clay, Nadal, plays. Federer will probably rest his body and be ready to defend his Wimbledon title.
Uncertain State of the Men’s Field
Federer will have more opportunities to win Majors this year because the Men’s field has its issues right now. Andy Murray was hurt and did not even play in Melbourne. Novak Djokovic returned after 6 months but his elbow is still not fully healed. He did well until he lost in straight sets to 21 year old Hyeon Chung, who had a breakout performance. Nadal was playing great in the tournament until he lost to Cilic in the Quarterfinals. He also hurt his left leg and had to retire down 2-0 in the fifth set. He has had an injury plagued career. Hopefully, he returns and is healthy the rest of the year. Nevertheless, Nadal and Djokovic were blocking Federer from winning more Majors until the last two years. Nadal is definitely no longer in his prime but has adjusted his game to win again. Moreover, Federer has adjusted to Nadal’s game and reversed the narrative of their head to head history. I also believe Djokovic has passed his prime now that he is over 30 and hitting a wall in his career. He will need to adjust and adapt his game like Federer and Nadal. Federer stayed in contention throughout the years and has amazingly outlasted their primes for another window to increase his Grand Slam count. There has also not been a young star who has emerged and created a major obstacle for the older players.
Caroline Wozniacki defeats Simona Halep 7-6, 3-6, 6-4 to Win First Career Grand Slam
For Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep, one of them was going to get the proverbial monkey off their back and win their first career Major title heading into Saturday’s Final at the Australian Open. The match had the extra incentive of the number 1 ranking. Both players are very similar. In the era of power tennis, they are counter punchers who utilize their speed and play defense rather than match the power of other top players. Halep headed into the match as the current number 1 ranked female player. Wozniacki is a former number 1 who has spent 67 weeks at the top spot. They have had similar careers. Moreover, the coveted Grand Slam title, that validates their success, has eluded both of them. Both women had also been to two Grand Slam Finals each. Halep came close to winning her two French Open Finals. It was especially disappointing at last year’s French Open when she lost as a heavy favorite against the unseeded, 19 year old Jelena Ostapenko. For Wozniacki, she was an underdog in her two U.S. Open Finals and lost both matches in straight sets. She has also consistently had the dubious distinction of being called the best player to not win a Major. Halep is not far behind and is definitely one of the best not to win. From my perspective, it was not too surprising that both players had not won a Major. As counter punchers, they lacked the power to match the more powerful hitters in the women’s draw. Accordingly, they were susceptible to running into another top player who can overpower them. Moreover, the lack of power also required them to grind out a lot of matches because they cannot end points as quickly as others. Although they could beat any opponent, it was difficult to not to get worn down physically and mentally over the 7 matches required to win a Grand Slam with their style of play. However, they have definitely improved their offensive games as an addition to their great defense. Both women have worked on their serves. While they still do not come near the hardest serves on the tour, they are hitting them flatter, faster, and placing them better. Their forehands have also clearly improved. During the tournament, Wozniacki had the edge on the improved serve while Halep was rocketing more powerful forehands. Their improvement was clearly a primary reason they advanced to the Finals.
Nevertheless, both players showed incredible will and determination to survive and advance throughout the tournament. Wozniacki was down 5-1 and 40-15 [two match points] in the third set of the second round against Jana Fett. I went to sleep that night in the middle of the third set assuming she had lost the match. Fett almost smashed an ace to end the match but Wozniacki fought all the way back to advance. Afterwards, it was still not smooth sailing from there. The nerves and pressure to win a Major manifested throughout the rest of the tournament. When it looked like she would cruise in some matches, she dropped service games trying to close out the matches and made them a lot more difficult than they should have been before ultimately prevailing. Halep had an even tougher route to the Finals. She rolled her left ankle in her first match and fought through the pain the entire tournament. In the third round, she played the longest match in women’s Australian Open history, in terms of games, against American Lauren Davis. Halep fought off three match points at 11-10 before finally winning 15-13 in the decisive third set. She won another grueling, epic match in the Semi-Finals against 2-Time Grand Slam Champion, Angelique Kerber. Halep fought off another two match points in the tournament before winning the third set 9-7. Wozniacki and Halep have had a trying journey chasing the elusive Grand Slam title. It was only fitting that their path to the 2018 Australian Open Finals was extremely difficult.
The Finals was a great match. Both players deserved to win it. Again, both women play incredible defense with amazing court coverage. Not surprisingly, it was a long match with long rallies and many twist and turns because they had an easier time breaking serve than holding it. Halep clearly showed signs of fatigue after her grueling matches throughout the tournament. She played an hour and a half more tennis than Wozniacki during the tournament. Fatigue is especially an issue against Wozniacki, who is arguably the fittest player on the tour. On the other hand, Wozniacki showed more of her nerves than Halep did during the match. She jumped out to a 5-2 lead in the first set. She was up 5-3 serving for the set before Halep broke her. Instead of an easy first set, Wozniacki had to win it in the tie breaker. Halep won the second set to set up a thrilling third and final set. Up 2-0 with the early break, Wozniacki was serving for a 3-0 lead. At that point, it appeared like Halep was completely gassed and ready to be steamrolled by her opponent. Wozniacki had a couple of game points but Halep finally broke back on the sixth break point. There would be more breaks in the third set. After breaking to get to 2-1, Halep was broken again, easily without winning a point, to fall behind 3-1. Nevertheless, she broke Wozniacki’s next two service games and held her own service game to go up 4-3. Moreover, Wozniacki needed a medical timeout to get her left knee taped. Accordingly, the tables looked like they turned and Halep was primed to win the title. However, there was one final twist. Wozniacki broke Halep again in the very next game. Serving for the 5-4 lead, Wozniacki made multiple ridiculous saves, lunging at a couple balls, at 30-30 to win the point then the game. She broke Halep a final time to win the match. Not surprisingly, Wozniacki broke out in tears of joys as the weight of the world of was lifted.
For both players, I expect them to contend for more Grand Slam titles. For Wozniacki, she should play with a lot less pressure going forward. Nevertheless, I do not expect her to reel off multiple Major titles automatically. She is an excellent player and top player in her era. Nevertheless, she does not have the talent of an all-time great tennis player. Similarly, Halep is consistent so she will stay in the mix to contend and probably eventually win a Major. Nonetheless, I do not see her as an all-time great talent who wins a bunch of Majors either.
Disappointing Tournament for Young Players
The Australian Open was a major letdown for a lot of the up and coming players. At the U.S. Open, Sloane Stephens, Coco Vanderweghe, and Madison Keys joined Venus Williams in the all-American Semi-Finals. Stephens won the U.S. Open but followed up her title with a first round exit. Vanderweghe also fell in her first match. The U.S. Open runner up, Keys, performed the best of the three young players. She cruised to the Quarterfinals without dropping a set. However, she ran into the more seasoned and polished Angelique Kerber, who demolished her 6-1, 6-2. Nevertheless, Keys is primed to take the next step in her career and have a strong season. In my opinion, she has the brightest future of the young American players. She is the most talented and displays easy power. However, Garbiñe Murguruza is still my pick for the female player with the greatest upside. On the other hand, she has been dramatically inconsistent. She was upset in the second round of the Australian Open. She has two Grand Slam titles already. Moreover, she defeated top competition in the Finals: Serena Williams at the French Open and Venus Williams at Wimbledon. However, she has followed the victories up with a lot of early exits at Majors. I hope she is not a player who raises her game against the best but plays down to her competition too. I would like to see her take her place as the sport’s next great champion.
Impending Return of the Queen
Serena Williams did not have enough time to recuperate from giving birth and train to defend her Australian Open title. However, she will make her return soon at the Fed Cup. It is difficult to predict how she will do when she returns. She has already exceeded all reasonable expectations on how long she could dominate into her 30s. Nevertheless, it has been a 12 month layoff and she is at an advanced age. It is not a given that she returns to form. Of course, I would never bet against her. She is on a mission to get to 25 to surpass Margaret Court for the most Grand Slam titles and I would love to see her do it.