Roger Federer was in tears, the record books were in tatters and Marin Cilic was on toast.
The Swiss maestro had just won his 20th grand slam title and his sixth Australian Open title. It had taken a little over three hours and at times it had been an uphill struggle, but Federer had beaten Cilic 6-2, 6-7, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1. And when it was over, he could not control his emotions. He tried but it was not to be. As he attempted to thank his team at the end of his speech during the trophy presentation, he lost it completely.
The emotions that bubbled up and overwhelmed him at that moment had almost cost him the final. Played at night and under the roof on the Rod Laver Arena to protect everyone from the suffocating 37-degree heat, Federer had spent the whole day wondering “what if?” It was a schoolboy error – no player wants to allow himself to think too far ahead – but he could not stop himself.
“It’s a long day waiting for the final,” he said. “It easier when it’s in the afternoon time. You sleep, you go out there, you do your best and that’s it. But when it’s at night, you think about the match all day. It’s tough.
“I think that’s why I was so bloody emotional at the end. In the third, fourth and fifth sets, I kept thinking: what would it feel like if I won? What would it feel like if I lost? It wouldn’t go away.
“I was so close and my mind was all over the place. I’m so close, don’t mess this up. And that’s exactly when you mess it up! That’s why it got to me at the end.”
And he did so nearly mess it up. The first set had been a breeze as Cilic could barely land a ball in court. The nerves were all on his side of the net. But then, as the tall and powerful Croat started to welt a few forehands and find his range with his ground strokes, it was Federer’s turn to get tight. That cost him the set.
He was back in control in the third set but by the fourth, the artistic, elegant Federer was being blasted off the court by the bigger, stronger man. And then Federer held serve at the start of the fifth set.
When he did, he yelled his battle cry “chum jetze!” (It means “come on, now”) and chum he did. With the experience of 19 previous grand slam victories, he screwed down his nerve and his focus as Cilic fell away. The title was his and the records were stacking up yet again.
He is the only man to have reached seven Australian Open finals, he matched Roy Emerson’s Amateur era and Novak Djokovic’s Open era records of six titles. He became only the fourth player in history to reach the 20 grand slam milestone (only Margaret Court with 24 titles, Serena Williams with 23 and Steffi Graf with 22 have more) and he had defended a grand slam for the first time in ten years (the last time he did it was at the US Open in 2008).
But still he wants more. At the age of 36, Federer is as much in love with the game, the competition and the lifestyle as he was when he won his first major trophy at Wimbledon in 2003.
Retirement is not something he wishes to contemplate even if he knows that he cannot go on forever. For the moment, though, he knows he can still keep winning these events and beating the younger men to do so.
“Defending my title from last year, sort of the fairytale continues,” he said. “It’s definitely a very special moment in my life again.
“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. Then I don’t think age is an issue, per se. It’s just a number.
“But I need to be very careful in my planning, really decide beforehand what are my goals, what are my priorities. I think that’s what’s going to dictate how successful I will be. There are exciting times ahead.”
Not even Federer can stop time – in August he will turn 37 – but it does seem that nothing and no one can stop the Swiss magician. By the time he celebrates that next birthday, he may have 21 grand slam trophies sitting on his mantelpiece.