Master's big moment

Last Updated 27 January 2018, 19:08 IST

The Australian Open men's final between Roger Federer and Marin Cilic will be a rematch of last July's Wimbledon final. It also will be an on-court reunion after two impromptu practice sessions last November in the Maldives.

"It was just the two of us," Federer said with one of his goofy baritone laughs.

Has there been a great champion who was chummier with his rivals since the big-money era in tennis began?

Though one suspects the Federers and the Djokovics will not be vacationing together anytime soon, one of Federer's most remarkable achievements - in a career brimming with them - is to have somehow remained popular in the locker room as he has racked up more major singles titles than any other man in history and piled up career earnings in the direction of $1 billion.

This is a tribute to his people skills, and it contributes to the bottom line between the lines.

Summoning animus against him can be a psychological challenge, and it presumably only gets harder for those who played last September in the Laver Cup, the new and successful team event started by Federer and his management company. Cilic was among the many other top players to get a big payday along with a big dose of bonhomie.

"It was great to spend some time with him and the rest of the team at the Laver Cup," said Cilic, who played with Federer on the victorious Team Europe. "We got to know each other better, and Roger is an amazing guy and a big inspiration for most of the players."

But Cilic has to set all that aside, along with Federer's big-match mystique, to win his second Grand Slam singles title. "The majority of my focus is to try to focus on myself, my own game," Cilic said. "Now, reaching another final is completely different than all the others that I played. This time around, I'm a different player, different person, slightly different game, slightly different understanding of the game and different mental processes during the matches. I have to keep that for the final."

It is easy to view the final as a foregone conclusion: Federer winning in four sets, tops. He is 8-1 against Cilic and thumped him, 6-3, 6-1, 6-4, in the 2017 Wimbledon final, when Cilic was suffering from severe foot blisters and ended up in tears on a changeover.

Second-seeded Federer is as fresh as a 36-year-old father of four can presumably be at this stage, after winning all of his matches in straight sets and having to play for only 62 minutes in the semifinals after Hyeon Chung retired with severe foot blisters of his own when trailing, 1-6, 2-5.

"You do take the faster matches whenever you can because there's enough wear and tear on the body," Federer said. "There's enough tough matches throughout the season."

The surface in Rod Laver Arena, though apparently not quite as quick as in 2017, suits Federer's attacking game beautifully. In his last 40 outdoor hardcourt matches, he is 37-3.

There are always big numbers in the mix when it comes to Federer at this stage, but he can surely see the allure of trying to win his 20th Grand Slam singles title. A year ago, when he arrived at the Australian Open after a six-month injury break, he had 17 and had not won a major title since Wimbledon in 2012.

"It's a number that I honestly didn't think I'd get to or be close to," Federer said of No 20.

"Last year before this tournament I would have been happy to say that I'd win one more Slam before the end of my career. I'd been trying for four or five years to win one more, and I would have said, 'One more? Great!'"

After winning last year's Australian Open and Wimbledon, he is here at 19, just one win from becoming the oldest man to claim a major singles title in the Open era since Ken Rosewall won the Australian Open at 37 in 1972. (That would not quite be an apples-to-apples comparison because of the comparative weakness of that 1972 field, which was missing many leading players, including Stan Smith, Arthur Ashe and Ilie Nastase.)

But several coaches in Melbourne do see a pathway for the sixth-seeded Cilic to spring an ambush, just as he did in the 2014 US Open semifinals on his way to his only major title. He also nearly did it in the 2016 Wimbledon quarterfinals before Federer saved three match points and prevailed in five sets.

"Obviously Roger goes in the favourite," said Neville Godwin, who coached last year's surprise US Open finalist, Kevin Anderson, and is now coaching Chung. "But Marin does have a chance if he can press Roger and get the points moving and maybe try and expose Roger on the backhand side, because Roger can be exposed there. Marin has the good weapons to be able to do it."

Godwin added: "He also has to serve really well, hit his spots really well. Because if Roger gets on to something, he's so good."

Federer and Cilic are both good company, and in November when Federer was in the Maldives with his family, it was only fitting Cilic would be there, too. Federer said they practised twice for about 45 minutes.

Cilic, now 29, has imposing flat power off both wings and great reach at 6-foot-6. He has improved his footwork and ability to flow from shot to shot - both laterally and when attacking the net - and has been focusing on his volleys.

At his best, Cilic can be suffocating, as he sometimes was in his quarterfinal match against Rafael Nadal before Nadal retired with an inner hip injury in the fifth set.

Cilic's longtime mentor, Bob Brett, said he also has improved his on-court demeanour, and by that Brett does not mean Cilic has become more self-contained.

Feigning a growl and baring his teeth, Brett said Cilic was "more like this on the court."

"Which I think is good," he said.

We'll see if Cilic can find a way to snarl when it is Federer across the net.

(Published 27 January 2018, 18:58 IST)

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