Roger Federer’s pedigree can gain entry to select grand slam club

Marin Cilic must turn up the power in the Australian Open to avoid a repeat of last year’s Wimbledon final and deny the Swiss an historic triumph

Roger Federer can win his 20th grand slam by beating Marin Cilic in the Australian Open men’s final in Melbourne

Roger Federer can win his 20th grand slam by beating Marin Cilic in the Australian Open men’s final in Melbourne.
Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

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.

All eyes on the Australian Open – a photo essay

Fans arrive on day 1 of the Australian Open in Melbourne.

Almost 750,000 spectators will flood into Melbourne Park over the course of the Australian Open to watch one of the showpiece events in the tennis calendar. It’s been the home of Australian tennis since 1988, when the facilities were purpose-built to replace those at Kooyong.

Last year spectators were treated to an unforgettable men’s final when Roger Federer defeated his old rival Rafael Nadal in five sets to claim a fairytale 18th grand slam title. This year the men’s and women’s draws have been beset by injuries and withdrawals – with Andy Murray and Serena Williams among those unable to play in the singles competitions – making it one of the most open and unpredictable slams in recent years.

Photos outside the venue on day one.

A ticket to the tournament for day one.

Tennis fans take selfies at the entrance.

Australian kids singing ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie’ as they enter Melbourne Park.

There are 40 tennis courts at Melbourne Park, three of them arenas with retractable roofs. But some of the most intriguing matches are played by lesser-known players in front of sparse crowds on the outer and show courts. The courts back onto one another in such proximity that the thwack of balls from neighbouring matches is as audible as the calls of the line judges.

A general view of the action on Court 3 on day one.

A view looking over the outer courts.

A player on the outer courts hits a backhand return.

Officials change the nets.

A player winces from getting sweat in his eyes.

Doubles action on an outer court.

Laura Robson in the women’s doubles with Coco Vandeweghe.

Denis Istomin reacts to a bad shot.

A sleepy ballkid.

A player with sport bandages on her shoulder.

Temperatures in Melbourne soared to 40C on Thursday and Friday, leading to complaints from players including Novak Djokovic who said it was “right at the limit” of being dangerous and Gaël Monfils who said he was “dying on the court for 40 minutes”. The Australian Open organisers didn’t enforce the heat rule which states that matches must be halted or roofs closed when the mercury hits 40C ambient temperature and the wet-bulb reading gets above 32.5C. Spectators were at least able to cool off in front of huge mist machines and watch the matches from the comfort of deck chairs.

Spectators in Garden Square watching the action on a big screen.

A young fan enjoys the mist machine on a boiling hot day.

Raking shadows and pockets of light gave professional photographers plenty to play with, especially when viewing the action from the concourses and “catwalks” overlooking Rod Laver Arena and Margaret Court Arena. The late afternoon sunlight also bled through the outer courts casting distinctive patterns across Melbourne Park’s blue surfaces.

Novak Djokovic returns a shot.

A player crouches down in the afternoon sunlight during a doubles match.

Gael Monfils stretches for a return against Novak Djokovic.

Petra Kvitova leaps awkwardly.

In the absence of Andy Murray, Britain’s Kyle Edmund has shone. After defeating the big-serving 11th seed, Kevin Anderson, in round one and Denis Istomin in round two, Edmund battled back from injury to win a five-set thriller against Nikoloz Basilashvili in round three.

Kyle Edmund in action in the early rounds.

Kyle Edmund in action in the early rounds.

Kyle Edmund celebrates his third round win over Nikoloz Basilashvili.

The two biggest names in the men’s singles competition, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, progressed through the opening two rounds unscathed. Nadal was imperious in his first round drubbing of Victor Estrella Burgos, against whom he dropped only three games. At one stage a spectator called out: ‘Give him a chance, Rafa’. The pair shared a warm post-match embrace at the net. Meanwhile, Federer made one teenager’s night when he tossed his black bandana to him after beating Aljaz Bedene in straight sets. The most uncomfortable the reigning champion looked all night was in a post-match interview with comedian Will Ferrell who, in character as Ron Burgundy, described the Swiss as a “silky gazelle” and asked if he maintained his health by only eating wombat meat.

Rafael Nadal serves on day one.

Rafael Nadal consoles Victor Estrella Burgos.

Roger Federer on day two against Aljaz Bedene.

A fan who caught Roger Federer’s bandana.

Will Ferrell interviews Roger Federer.

Home favourite Nick Kyrgios built on his recent title win in Brisbane and, despite firing abuse at the crowd and the umpire, showed signs he may yet make the most of his mercurial talent at a major. He earned and later won a third round clash with his childhood idol Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who beat Canadian prodigy Denis Shapovalov in round two. Elsewhere, third seed Grigor Dimitrov saw off Andrey Rublev, much to the delight of his Bulgarian compatriots in the stands, and six-times Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic overcame Gaël Monfils in the second round to keep his tournament alive. Monfils took the first set before blistering heat saw him wilt.

Nick Kyrgios during a change of ends at Hisense Arena on day 1.

Denis Shapovalov fires a shot against Jo Wilfried Tsonga.

Denis Shapovalov serves against Jo Wilfried Tsonga.

Jo Wilfried Tsonga celebrates beating Denis Shapovalov.

Bulgarian fans supporting Grigor Dimitrov on day five.

Water sprays up off the head of Gael Monfils on day four.

Novak Djokovic plays a forehand shot.

Gael Monfils looking exhausted by the heat.

Novak Djokovic signs autographs for the crowd.

In the women’s singles competition there were early shocks: Venus Williams, Petra Kvitova and Johanna Konta were all dispatched, Kvitova going home in tears. Elsewhere, Maria Sharapova, appearing in her first Aussie Open since a drugs ban, said the experience of being back at the venue where she won the tournament in 2008 gave her “shivers”. She was knocked out in the next round. Australian Ashleigh Barty impressed as the sun set over Rod Laver Arena but also fell at the third hurdle, while compatriot Sam Stosur blew her concentration and a second set advantage as she lost to Monica Puig in round one. Seemingly the only thing that’s certain in the women’s draw this year is that when the final ball is hit on Saturday night a new champion will be crowned.

Petra Kvitova walks off in tears after losing to Andrea Petkovic.

Maria Sharapova against Anastasija Sevastova on day two.

Ashleigh Barty v Camila Giorgi on Rod Laver Arena.

Sam Stosur tries to concentrate.

Line call: in our out at the Australian Open.

Johanna Konta’s Australian Open chances given unexpected boost

The late withdrawal of Serena Williams from the Australian Open did little to shake up the field, given the American has not played since winning her 23rd slam title in Melbourne a year ago when she was seven weeks pregnant, but it did offer a sliver of hope for the other contenders, including Britain’s Johanna Konta.

Konta has shown enough in Brisbane this week to suggest she has recovered from the worrying stretch of five straight defeats that accompanied her foot injury late last season and she has as good a chance of competing for the title as any of the top 10 – if she is fit.

Konta quit during the third set of her tight match against Elina Svitolina on Thursday with a strain to – what else? –her right hip, although it appeared to be considerably less serious than the nagging weakness in that area that has plagued Andy Murray to the point where his very future is in doubt.

The world No9 later flew to Sydney, where she was born, to reunite with her family and to work out what she needs to do to get fit for Melbourne on 15 January. Konta said in a vague fitness update on Friday: “My medical team has been assessing the injury again and we will have a clearer idea when I next practise. I’ll give everyone more of an update when I can.” That did not sound as if she was waiting for an ambulance to hurry her away for a scan.

There is doubt still about the participation of Victoria Azarenka and pundits have looked elsewhere for a Melbourne favourite, mainly in the direction of Garbiñe Muguruza, just ahead of Karolina Pliskova, although the Czech lost in straight sets to Svitolina in Brisbane.

Simona Halep, the world No1, has reached the final at the Shenzhen Open, where she will face Katerina Siniakova, the defending champion, who defeated Maria Sharapova in three sets.

Williams, who is not yet ready to return, will be in the peculiar situation of being technically unranked on the last day of the tournament – the first time that has been the case since October, 1997. It seems not even the prospect of drawing alongside Margaret Court’s 24 majors was sufficient a temptation for her to change her mind about coming to Melbourne.

She received support from Nick Kyrgios, whose commitment to the sport has known its rocky moments. Asked after beating Alexandr Dolgopolov in three sets in Brisbane what he made of the welter of withdrawals and injury problems among elite players, the straight-talking Australian said: “They’ve got to do other things in their life, mate. I mean, Serena just had a kid. She can’t play tennis forever.

“That’s what happens. People do other stuff. I do other stuff than playing tennis, as well. We can’t be available all the time. If I had a kid, I probably wouldn’t play the Australian Open, either. Andy Murray is a bit unfortunate through injury but they’re getting older, these guys. They can’t always be available.”

If there is a new force lurking to fill the void in the women’s draw in Melbourne, a good long-shot may be world No74 Belinda Bencic, who brought her run of unbeaten singles matches in all competitions to 18 when she beat the world No10 CoCo Vandeweghe 7-6 (6), 6-4 to help Switzerland into the final of the Hopman Cup in Perth this week.

There is support, too, for Australia’s most versatile athlete, the international cricketer and world No17, Ashleigh Barty. One bookmaker reckons she is “among the most popular bets” to win in Melbourne, which reflects sentiment for a local favourite as much as considered analysis. That said the former Wimbledon girls’ champion had been in excellent form until her first-round defeat in Brisbane to the unseeded Ukrainian Lesia Tsurenko.