By JOHN PYE, AP Sports Writer
MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — As Roger Federer cried while accepting his 20th Grand Slam title, Rod “Rocket” Laver took a chance to snap a picture for posterity.
Federer has won more major singles titles than any man, including a record-equaling six on the court that bears the great Rod Laver’s name at Melbourne Park.
This one, following a tension-filled, momentum-swinging 6-2, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 win over Marin Cilic in Sunday’s Australian Open final, was a keeper.
Laver has been involved in the on-court presentations in the past, witnessing Federer’s tears at close range. This time, the 79-year-old Laver — the only man to twice win all four Grand Slam titles in one season — held up his mobile phone to get the shot from the stands.
“I didn’t see that through my thick tears, that he was taking a picture of me crying,” Federer said. He joked in a TV interview that, “I couldn’t lift my head, I was so embarrassed.”
Surely, it’s only an embarrassment of riches.
Federer arrived in Melbourne at the start of 2017 after an extended injury layoff and on a Grand Slam title drought that dated back to 2012 at Wimbledon. Against the odds, he reached the final and then beat Rafael Nadal in a classic, five-set encounter. Now, having successfully defended his Australian title, Federer has won three of the last five majors in a stunning career resurgence.
“I’m so happy. It’s unbelievable,” Federer said, taking deep breaths and choking back tears. “Of course, winning is an absolute dream come true — the fairytale continues for us, for me, after the great year I had last year, it’s incredible.”
Federer started to tear up toward the end of the trophy ceremony. He then received a standing ovation as tears streamed down his face.
At the age of 36 years, 173 days, Federer became the second-oldest man to win a Grand Slam singles title in the Open era after Ken Rosewall, who won the 1972 Australian Open at 37.
The match wasn’t entirely without controversy after organizers decided to close the roof for the final, just as they had for the afternoon mixed doubles final when Mate Pavic and Gabriela Dabrowski beat Rohan Bopanna and Timea Babos for the title.
Former champions were among the commentators questioning the decision, suggesting there’d been hotter days when the heat policy was not enacted.
“I was surprised to hear they had the heat rule in place for a night match. I never heard that before,” Federer said. “For me, it doesn’t change anything.”
Tournament referee Wayne McEwen has the option of closing the roof when the temperature reaches 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) and a measure called the wet-bulb globe temperature — which combines factors such as heat, humidity and breeze — reaches 32.5C (90.5F).
The temperature hit 38C (100F) an hour before the men’s final, when the WGBT reading was 32.7C (91F).
“With no dramatic reduction forecast, the referee exercised his discretion and called for the roof to be closed,” Tennis Australia said in a statement. “At no other time during the event this year has the WBGT reading reached the threshold.”
Federer took instant advantage of the air-conditioned venue, breaking Cilic’s serve in the first and third games.
“Mentally was tough. Also was difficult with conditions. Throughout the tournament I played all my matches outdoors, also preparing a hot day,” Cilic said. “Then first match for the final to play with the roof closed, it’s difficult.”
It was clear early on that the crowd would be heavily pro-Federer. The arena was filled with red and white, with Federer supporters wearing Swiss flags on their shirts, hats and faces and one waving a sign that read: “The Big Two-Oh. Go Roger!”
After smashing an overhead into the base of the net and shanking a forehand long, Cilic went to his equipment bag for a new racket after just 12 points. Federer only conceded two points on his serve in the 24-minute opening set.
But Cilic rallied, getting his big forehand working and, after missing a set point on Federer’s serve in the 10th game, leveled the match in the tiebreaker. That was the first set Federer had dropped in the tournament.
Federer easily won the third set and was up a break in the fourth but the momentum swung again, with Cilic going on a roll to level the match. The sixth-seeded Cilic had two chances to break Federer’s serve in the first game of the fifth set, but wasted them both with two unforced errors. He then double-faulted twice in the second game to drop his own serve, giving Federer the decisive lead in the set.
Federer is now 9-1 against 2014 U.S. Open champion Cilic, including last year’s Wimbledon final.
After serving out at love, his celebration was delayed slightly by an unsuccessful challenge from Cilic on match point. It was a similar end to his five-set win over Nadal here last year. And, just like 12 months ago, he held it together until the victory ceremony, when the tears flowed.
“I’ve won three Slams now in 12 months. I can’t believe it myself,” said Federer, showing no signs he’s ready for his resurgent run to stop. “I just got to keep a good schedule, stay hungry, then maybe good things can happen. I don’t think age is an issue.”
Photo Credit: si.com