Tears flow as Federer holds nerve to claim 20th Grand Slam title
At first sight, the headline on the front page of the local Melbourne paper seemed faintly daft: "Roger Federer is on the brink of tennis immortality today as he fights for his 20th major title." What, you mean he is not there already?
But numbers have real meaning in sport, and it turns out that they are important to Federer as well. Perhaps the most surprising thing about his five-set victory over Marin Cilic yesterday was how emotional he was afterwards, more emotional than we have ever seen him after a win.
After a choked-up acceptance speech that ended with tears streaming down his face, he explained that the 20-slam barrier had been weighing on his mind all day.
"During the match I constantly thought about the fact that I could reach 20," Federer told Swiss TV station SRF. "I was nervous the whole day, I thought about what would happen if I lose, if I win. That's why I broke down during the speech."
Those nerves may explain why this was not one of the greatest Federer performances, despite a wonderful start in which he ran away with the first four games in just 12 minutes. He was showing no mercy at this stage, not even to the man he shared cocktails with in November, when he and Cilic found themselves holidaying on the same luxury island in the Maldives.
Curiously, though, Federer's game flickered up and down all evening like a weak mobile signal. When he was nailing his first serves - something he only managed to do in the oddly numbered sets of his 6-2, 6-7, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 victory - he was almost unplayable, because he was winning 80pc of those points.
But when his rhythm fell away - and he made only nine of 25 first serves in the fourth set - he found himself stretched uncomfortably around the court, as the tenacious Cilic imposed his extra height, reach and strength.
The contest hinged on a few minutes at the beginning of the deciding set.
Cilic held two break points in the opening game, and thus had the opportunity to move ahead on the scoreboard for the first time all night.
However, when he missed two makeable forehand returns, Federer held with a guttural roar of "chum jetze" (Swiss-German for 'come on now'), and then proceeded to reel off five of the next six games for his sixth Australian Open title.
Rod Laver Arena might often be seen as Novak Djokovic's manor, but Federer now stands alongside the Serbian on that leaderboard.
Another oddity of the evening was the Australian Open's decision to close the stadium roof, on the grounds that the temperature had climbed fractionally above the cut-off point of 32.5C (90.5F).
This was probably a relief for the spectators, because the heat was even more intense than it had been on Saturday. That night, after the women's final had been played with an open roof, runner-up Simona Halep became so dehydrated that she spent four hours on a drip in hospital.
In tennis terms, though, the call had significant implications. Federer is the master of indoor conditions, having previously won 23 titles under a roof. And the relative coolness inside this air-conditioned bowl would have slowed down the flight of the ball, thus reducing the damage Cilic could cause with his 133mph serve and rasping groundstrokes.
Cilic could barely manage a protest in his post-match press conference. He did point out that it was his first match in the tournament under a roof.
"I have to say that decision, could it have been different?" he asked, almost rhetorically. "I guess so. I think that it was just a little bit difficult to adjust. With the roof closed, it was way, way cooler than I expected. That was very, very difficult."
Federer reckoned the high temperatures might have slowed down "a bigger guy like Marin" before making any impact on his own pristine footwork.
"Of course, I backed myself in sort of indoor conditions," he said. "But I didn't mind the heat, to be honest."
This was Federer's 96th title in all, and it could yet carry him back to the top of the world rankings for the fourth time.
The weekend's finals underlined the diverging paths followed by the two tours. Women's tennis is diversifying, having welcomed three new major champions since Serena Williams announced her pregnancy last spring.
Men's tennis is a duopoly. Federer and Nadal have now won the last five Grand Slams in an alternating pattern. Given their status as overwhelming favourites for Wimbledon and Roland Garros respectively, few would bet against them extending that sequence.
The last question directed at Federer in the press conference, almost inevitably, related to how long he plans to keep on playing.
"I have no idea," he replied. "I've won three slams now in 12 months. I can't believe it myself. I've just got to keep a good schedule, stay hungry, then maybe good things can happen.
"If I'm careful in my planning, that will dictate how successful I will be." (© The Daily Telegraph)