MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Roger Federer survived a second set ‘freeze’ and an onslaught from Croatia’s Marin Cilic to claim a record-equalling sixth Australian Open title on Rod Laver Arena on Sunday.
The Swiss maestro wobbled at times in the face of some fierce resistance before winning 6-2 6-7(5) 6-3 3-6 6-1.
With the stadium roof closed to keep out the withering Melbourne heat, the 36-year-old grabbed the first set in 24 minutes as a 20th grand slam title looked a formality.
But Cilic, who suffered a nightmare in last year’s Wimbledon final against Federer when blisters wrecked his chances, was not going to let his first Australian Open final slide by.
At times it seemed he was taking on Federer and crowd but when he reeled off five consecutive games to extend the champion into a deciding set, the match hung in the balance.
Federer recovered his mojo after saving two break points at the start of the fifth and was roared home to victory.
Despite all his titles and accolades, Federer was overcome with emotion during his victory speech.
“The fairytale continues for us, for me, it’s incredible,” Federer, who equalled Novak Djokovic and Roy Emerson’s Australian Open haul, said on court as wife Mirka and Australian great Rod Laver recorded to the moment with their mobile phones.
“I got off to a flyer but I froze in the tiebreak and lost that second set and lost control of the match.
“I got a bit lucky tonight I think.”
After enduring a five-year grand slam drought that had many people writing him off, Federer has enjoyed a glorious renaissance over the past 12 months by winning three of the past five majors.
“Getting number six here and number 20 overall, it’s just a very special moment,” he said.
Cilic, who will rise to a career-high three in the rankings, won four points in the first four games, but despite a shamelessly pro-Federer crowd, he stuck to his guns.
“It was an amazing journey for me. It could have been the best two weeks of my life,” Cilic said.
“I had the chance at the beginning of the fifth but he played a great match.”
Temperatures in Melbourne had hovered in the high 30s Celsius all day but the humidity felt less suffocating than during Saturday’s humdinger of a women’s final.
So it was a surprise when the match started with the roof shut, a decision tournament organisers defended by issuing a statement saying “wet bulb globe temperature” readings had triggered the “extreme heat policy”.
While Melbourne Park cooked, Federer was as cool as a cucumber in the relatively benign conditions on court.
He broke in the first game when he hoisted a lob towards the roof and Cilic framed a smash into the net.
The 29-year-old Cilic dropped serve again two games later and gained sympathetic cheers when he finally registered on the scoreboard in the fifth game.
Cilic began to settle but still had to fend off break points in the second set at 1-1, 2-2 and 4-4.
He had a glorious chance to level the match against the run of play when Federer double-faulted at 30-30 in the 10th game, but he buried a routine backhand into the net.
Federer began the tiebreak with a couple of aces and broke with a forehand but Cilic ratcheted up the power to move 6-4 ahead with thundering forehand and levelled the match with another beefy winner from his favourite wing.
It was Federer’s first dropped set in the fortnight.
Order was quickly restored as Federer broke once to take the third set and when he had a point for a double break in the fourth, the title beckoned. Cilic blasted his way out of trouble though and when he broke to love for 3-3, he looked menacing.
Cilic will rue the two break points that got away in the first game of the decider, failing to make a return on both.
Federer hung tough to take the game with an angled backhand winner and steamed on to his 20th grand slam title.
Incredibly the evergreen Swiss has won 10 percent of the 200 grand slams staged since tennis turned professional in 1968.
Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar