As much as the men’s final on Sunday is supposed to be an equal contest between the two best players left upright and healthy after six matches, Roger Federer always stands tallest in his sport and Marin Cilic, even looking down from 6ft 6in, knows it.
He was reminded of the disparity between them at Wimbledon last year, when Federer toyed with him, ruthlessly exploiting his poor movement on blistered feet to win the final in an hour and 41 minutes.
If, as expected, Federer’s pedigree proves too much for Cilic’s power, the history will be all his: a 20th major, four more than any man, two behind Steffi Graf, three behind Serena Williams and within four of Margaret Court. It would be his sixth Australian title, to move alongside Novak Djokovic and Roy Emerson.
By winning, Federer, the oldest finalist here since Ken Rosewall, 37, and Mal Anderson, 36, shared the stage 46 years ago, would strike another elegant blow for his generation, a third slam title since he turned 35. He would also keep safe the dominance that he and Rafael Nadal have rebuilt after sharing last year’s majors between them. Previously, they have shut out the field in sequences of 11, between 2005 and 2007, six in 2008 and 2009, and four in 2010.
Federer, naturally, expresses respect for Cilic, and even warmth, revealing they played together when they learned they were staying nearby on holidays in the Maldives in late November. But it will be all business on Sunday – and the defending champion is aware he can take no liberties with an opponent who has the game to blow anyone off court. He has done it to Federer once in eight matches, mind: in three sets in the US Open semi-finals in 2014.
“He’s very professional,” Federer said. “He’s always very much the same, regardless of whether he wins or loses. I like that attitude. He’s a winner. You can see it in the way he behaves on the court. He’s there to win and not just to be there. Sometimes you see other players and you feel like they’re happy to have made the quarters. He strives for more.
“I just hope I’m going to have a good start to the match. I hope I can mix up my game, start serving well from the get-go, not get into too much trouble early. And I hope I can read his serve.”
The serve is where this match will be won and lost – like nearly every tennis match, perhaps, but particularly so for opponents who have been in sizzling form with ball in hand throughout the tournament. There has been little between them in the key statistics.
Cilic is tied for eighth in unreturned serves with 41% (254 of 624). Federer is not far behind him in a group of four in 19th place with 37% (174/468). Cilic, though, has had considerably more free points with 107 aces – 19 behind the awesome Ivo Karlovic – to Federer’s 71, which is still good enough to put him in sixth place on the board. If it comes to sheer pace, Cilic also has the edge, having struck a high 133.6mph – 15th fastest of the fortnight – while Federer has cranked it up to 128mph.
It is winning the point that matters and again Cilic edges it with 335 from 408 to Federer’s 243 from 296. Both, though, are at 82%. It is just that Cilic has played way more service games in the 17 hours and three minutes he has spent on court in reaching the final.
Federer has had one of the easiest runs of his career. From beating Aljaz Bedene for the loss of 10 games in the first round through to seeing Hyeon Chung quit with blistered feet seven games into the second set of their semi-final on Friday night, Federer has spent a mere 10 hours and 50 minutes on court. That is just short of an hour more than his stroll of nine hours and 56 minutes at Wimbledon last summer.
The final was perhaps his easiest match of that tournament. Like Chung here, the Croat discovered that going into a match against Federer with tender or sore feet is not a good idea, and the Swiss had Cilic twisting and turning so much on his already blistered feet at Wimbledon that he was near tears at the end of their disappointing three-setter. It is unlikely he will make that mistake again.