He is the greatest player to ever pick up a tennis racket. He is one of foremost athletes to have ever competed in any game, at any time, anywhere.
Yet Roger Federer weeps. At his moment of triumph, as millions across this globe were giddy with delight, tears fell down his cheeks.
His face revealed his passion. For his prime emotion is love – love of competition, love of his sport and love for his family, friends and fans.
This is a man apart.
Writer Christopher Clarey said, “You haven’t lived the 21st-century life fully if you haven’t seen Federer and Nadal play in person.” Still, questions abound. Can a sports guy actually be a genius? Why not? And what shows us more about this man – his sublime play, or his emotion and vulnerability after his triumph? What’s most to love about this 36-year-old elder? Is it his technique, his on-court mastery, his athletic grace, his lunch-bucket willingness to work, his health and Old Man River longevity, his rock star charisma, his boy-like light touch and humor, his street-fighting-man toughness, his unwavering professionalism, his balletic grace or a core goodness that emerges at every turn?
Three hundred and eighty days ago, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic were the leading lights in the game. But now, with his 6-2, 6-7(5), 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 seesaw win over Marin Cilic, Federer has won his third Slam out of the last five that have been played. While the other four members of the Big Five – Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka – have been licking their wounds after losses or dealing with serious injuries, or both, Roger, who is far older, rolls on.
His Aussie title was his sixth, and his 20th Slam overall. Incredibly, he’s won ten percent of the two hundred majors played over the 50-year history of Open tennis.
Before tonight’s final, Roger said he just hoped he would get off to a fast start. Did he ever!
In the first set we saw Roger in all his breathless glory: flash forehands, youthful net charges and rhythmic serves that were as powerful as they were beautiful. Roger won 16 of the first 20 points and went up 4-0 over his shell-shocked, error-prone foe. “This,” noted Brad Gilbert about Cilic, “is a classic example of not managing your game and your mind, and Fed is taking advantage.”
Moving with liquid ease, Roger was faster and more confident. Every shot seemed to be in his command. This was far too easy. “He’s just missing his cape,” joked broadcaster Kate Kearns. As Federer swept to a 6-2 first-set win, it was clear that Cilic was adrift, almost hapless – a giant desperately seeking a Plan B. If this had been boxing, the ref might have ended the fight.
Still, there is a reason the Croat will be No. 3 in the rankings next week. He beat Federer en route to his 2014 US Open title, and here he came from behind to dismiss an ailing Nadal in the quarterfinals. In the second set, Cilic got in gear, while Federer revealed he was human. Roger’s serving dipped. Errors crept in. He had three break points, but he couldn’t deliver a knockout punch. Similarly, when Roger went ahead in the second-set tiebreak, Cilic tapped into his explosive, lean-in power, blasting powerful serves, forehands and overheads to come out on top, 7-5. (Afterward, Federer said he lost the set, the first one he dropped in the tourney, because he was nervous.)
Roger counterattacked with fury, taking advantage of a single wobbly service game by Cilic to grab the third set 6-3. Then it was Cilic’s turn. Observers noted that, on occasion, Roger has had problems with 6’6″ power-meisters like Juan Martin del Potro and Alexander Zverev. And in the fourth set, we saw the big man’s game explode in full force. He put Federer on his heels, grasped control and won the set 6-3. He was in ascendance.
But then, in the first game of the fifth set, after he failed to convert any of his four break points, he gave Roger an opening. Federer lifted his game and took advantage of a Cilic double fault and an awkward forehand error.
In a match of momentum twists, Roger broke again, and raced to yet another sublime final set victory to win the Aussie Open. Laver Arena erupted in elation. Their beloved hero may have been the second-oldest to win a Slam, but he wept like a kid. What other elite athlete has so often showed us such emotion?
Roger explained that though he got to the final without losing a set, his semi was cut short when Hyeon Chung retired and, unlike other finals, he had all day to think what it would mean to again lift “Norman” – his affectionate name for the tourney’s Norman Brookes trophy. He had a lot of feelings to work out.
Yes, but beyond this, we think the tears of this genius were all about a man who cares so much, who so adores his sport, and who – as much any sportsman we know of amazes with such an astonishing regularity.