Overall that was a very strange final. While appreciating I do have a somewhat one-eyed view of his matches, I think it’s arguable that it really shouldn’t have gone to five – or even four – sets. As well as Cilic did to hang in there, the primary reason he managed it was because Federer allowed his level to slip. He did so in the second by suddenly playing tentatively off the backhand side, and then in the fourth when – from double break point up – he entirely lost the range on his serve.
I was interested to read tennis.com’s Steve Tignor’s review last night, in which he referenced the 2009 US Open Del Potro final – that was exactly the match running through my mind while watching this one: it felt so familiar, in that Federer really should have put both matches to bed; didn’t, and then found himself being blown off court by a more powerful opponent. The difference here was twofold: 1) Federer is mentally much more complete now than he was in 2009 (off the back of various Nadal beatings, culminating in that 2009 Aus final); and 2) Cilic isn’t Del Potro. Ultimately, as much as I like CIlic, that 5th set was there for the taking, and you have to think that Del Potro wouldn’t have let Federer off the hook in the opening game.
The point in bold is a very interesting point, I think. At this point I think the jury is very much out regarding whether Federer actually is in decline, as ridiculous as that sounds. I don’t think he played at his best in this tournament, but his 2017 play was, for me, better than any period since 2004-7. Perhaps he’s slower – although when you see him defend like he did yesterday that’s debatable – but the backhand is clearly much better than ever before; the serve (already one of the game’s best) has somehow improved; and mentally he’s probably stronger than ever.
In fact, the mentality is probably the one difference in the 2017 form compared with this year. I think this tournament showed a Federer who was beginning to think about expectations again, compared with 2017 when he returned without any and promptly played unbelievably - and then just enjoyed riding that feeling all year.
In the past Federer has talked about his past form as a “monster” he created in terms of expectations, and while I don’t expect he will fall back into quite that mindset, I think the way he faltered here suggests that we can’t necessarily expect the free flowing 2017 Federer to reappear through 2018. Still, if this wasn’t quite vintage Federer, it’s undoubtedly an incredible way to start the year. At the age of 36 he has won three of the last five slams. Even by Federer standards, that’s just mind boggling.