In full cry, Roger Federer redefines greatness with 20th Grand Slam

Winner Roger Federer of Switzerland reacts during the awarding ceremony of the men's final match at the Australian Open in Melbourne, Australia, on Jan 28, 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Roger Federer of Switzerland at a press conference after winning the men's singles final against Marin Cilic of Croatia at the Australian Open Grand Slam tennis tournament in Melbourne, Australia, on Jan 29, 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

For days they'll talk about it. For weeks they'll recall it. How he cried and they cheered. How they cheered and he cried. How Roger Federer couldn't see Rod Laver take a picture because tears blurred his world. How the crowd stood up because what he'd done, winning a 20th Grand Slam title 6-2, 6-7 (5-7), 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 when it could have been lost, deserved that kind of ovation. Even in the press room a young woman wept at her desk. This is what greatness does to people.

For days they'll remember it, for weeks they'll replay it. The shot he constructs in the third set after he'd just broken Marin Cilic and when the match has the tension of a trial. The shot is hit off-balance, it's a half-volley forehand, with the ball almost behind him, which he connects with and curls down the line, inches from the line. Hand-eye voodoo.

Last year, Australian television shows a documentary on Laver, a humble, decent man, a leftie legend with a forearm akin to two baseball bats, who at one point says of himself: "As I got a little stronger I was able to pull off a lot of shots that a lot of people felt, that must have been a fluke."

When Laver saw Federer's shot he would have known it wasn't a fluke. Because this is simply what greatness does, it invents the unusual, it manufactures the preposterous. This is why people fill stadiums for Federer, this is why a friend, a brilliant writer, wanders down to the Arena on his day off, because of an uncomplicated human need to witness the best at anything and to be given a moment to carry back with you and hold like a memento.

Damn, remember that shot?

We want to constantly know, what is greatness, and here was one version this Sunday. A slightly rattled Swiss, a bit grumpy, driven and rugged. Greatness isn't always pretty but it's tough. All day, Federer, who some insist was gifted a closed roof as a favour to a senior citizen, said he was obsessed with the outcome, "How would I feel if I won, how would I feel if I lost." You'd think he'd know better, with all that experience, but even greatness loses its focus.

Last year in the final he went five punishing sets with Rafael Nadal. This year he goes five sets with the man who beat Nadal. At 36 years old, it's plain showing off. But even he's a little stunned, even he sounds and seems a little bewildered by his own greatness.

Remote video URL

On TV he uses a word you'd think he doesn't even know. He "froze", he said. It was a pointed admission for it was a human one. Even greatness gets nervous, it gets beaten up, it gets jerked around.

Cilic is magnificent, a Croatian Cassius, lean and hungry, and before the match one of his former coaches, Bob Brett, talks about his improved "efficiency" and "effectiveness" and the "fist" he now makes.

Cilic believes and you can see it for he shakes off a 2-6 first set and moves like a predatory bird with a massive wingspan, doing what Federer doesn't like which is flat, deep, big-hitting, big-returning, big-serving.

This gentle man with a competitive snarl makes the final compelling by brilliantly refusing to play the role most assigned him. He wasn't going to be the fall guy in a Swiss coronation. Federer may be on the posters, have his own choir and be pals with the guy who the stadium is named after, but still Cilic pounds Federer, he outplays him with what he describes as "phenomenal" tennis in the fourth set when he comes from 1-3 to 6-3. Greatness looks beatable.

But greatness endures and it grinds, it has some ingredient we can't quite separate and identify, but perhaps it's part-luck and some faith and a little trust. Like the first game of the fifth set, when Federer, who has been broken in his last two service games, is down two break points and survives. Next game he has one break point on Cilic's serve and he is through.

In the last four sets his percentage of second-serve points won is 59, 40, 44 and then 73. His unforced errors are 15, 10, 7 and 5. His fastest second serve is in the fifth set and his best break point conversion rate, 100 per cent, is in the fifth set. Greatness lifts even when it's unsure.

During the evening, to fans once and on TV he apologises for crying, but he shouldn't. Like the nerves he feels, it shows that tennis still matters, it reveals his humanness, it confirms he cares. At 36 he has 20 Slams only because he doesn't take his greatness for granted.

Join ST's Telegram channel here and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.