Picture the scene: Roger Federer had just lost the fourth set of the Australian Open final to Marin Cilic and he was moping around, frustrated by his play. Federer had been up a break in that set, but in what seemed like a split second, he became unraveled.
Federer’s serve had no bite and his legs looked weary. And as he left the court for a bathroom break, it appeared he was in real trouble.
Then in the opening game of the deciding set, Federer faced two break points. From bad to worse, right?
Not quite. The next 30 minutes were a whirlwind as Cilic blinked and Federer again started playing like the favorite. A few games later, Federer stood at the winner’s podium, celebrating with his latest trophy as tears streamed down his face.
The final score was 6-2, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 3-6, 6-1. The win gave Federer his sixth title in Australia and 20th Grand Slam overall. Hard to believe, but he’s now won three of the past five majors.
So how did he do it?
“The problem in the fourth set was that my mind was all over the place,” Federer told Australia’s Seven Network. “I was so close and I was telling myself, ‘Don’t mess it up,’ and then that’s exactly what I did. I got a bit lucky at the beginning of the fifth set. I personally don’t think I would have come back if he’d broken me first.”
But the truth is Federer has played as well as anyone during crunch time. He has now won 20 of his 30 matches that have gone five sets, including five of his past six.
In the final set Sunday, Federer played brilliantly, which was somewhat surprising given how badly he looked in the fourth. He made just five unforced errors, compared to 35 across the previous four sets. Cilic, who looked sharp at that point, committed 16 unforced errors in the final frame.
On the sideline in the waning moments, Federer’s coaching team of Ivan Ljubicic and Severin Luthi seemed calm, although Luthi later said he was concerned.
“There are phases where you are worried, where you are like, ‘OK, it’s not going our way, but you still need to believe,'” Luthi told ESPN.com.
“You also don’t want to let your head hang down, and I believe even on the outside, it’s important you’re still there and you still believe. I was just hoping he would go through that difficult patch and then in one or two shots, he can again make the difference.”
Luthi said the confidence Federer had built up over the previous 12 months was key to the turnaround in the final set.
“Last year it was amazing what Roger did, and I think he benefited a little bit from the fact that he told himself he didn’t have anything to lose,” Luthi said. “He played maybe a little bit more freely than maybe usual, and since then, he’s just playing great.”
“Sometimes you don’t know why the match is going on your side, but for sure it’s a lot about confidence. He also has a lot of experience to win matches like that, but you cannot drop 1 or 2 percent because otherwise it’s gone.”
Federer said his victory in 2018 was similar to his 2006 win here, when he cruised through the first six rounds and was the heavy favorite in the final against Marcos Baghdatis. On that occasion, Federer dropped the first set and was nervous. He eventually pulled through in four, afterward saying he was just relieved to come out of the match with a win.
Federer conceded that he was just as nervous Sunday. He hadn’t slept well since his abbreviated semifinal win Friday night and knew so much was on the line. “You can’t explain it sometimes,” Federer said. “It is just a feeling you get.”
But in the biggest moments, as Luthi explained, Federer got back to the basics.
“I think he also doesn’t always know how he does it,” Luthi said. “There’s no miracle or recipe to say that’s exactly what he has to do. Just try to stay calm and focused and make things maybe more simple. There are no recipes for situations like that. But he proved it so many times, so it’s not luck; sometimes you need a moment to go your way.”
Luck? Hardly. Let’s just call it the gift of a champion. A 20-time Grand Slam champion.