Published On: Sun, Jan 28th, 2018

Aussie Open final preview: The GOAT goes for No. 20, but will he be pushed?

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Well, here we are again.

While Roger Federer’s contemporaries and greatest historical challengers have fallen victim to injuries, upsets, and age-related decline, the 36-year-old wizard has skated to another Grand Slam final without dropping a set, looking fit as a fiddle and as untouchable as ever. Just like at Wimbledon six months ago, it will be Marin Cilic meeting him in the final down under, trying to make at least a dent in Federer’s unyielding armor.

He wasn’t able to do so last time, thanks in large part to a nasty foot blister that at one point reduced him to tears. But if healthy, the talented Croat has the goods to at least make this one competitive, and make Federer sweat for his 20th career Slam title.

Wouldn’t that be a welcome sight. Much as his diehards may delight in simply watching him pummel the competition into dust and stuff another Norman Brookes Cup into his really cool trophy case, it’s always more fun when Federer has a foil.

Cilic has proven in the past that he can play that role. Will that matter on Sunday?

History boy

There really isn’t much left to say about Federer. He’s still somehow moving as well as just about anyone on tour, still working miracles with his forehand, still bamboozling everyone with his serve, still just plain carving people up. He may be one of the tour’s elder statesmen, but he’s still playing with as much youthful exuberance and swagger as any of his peers.

If there’s one reason for skepticism Sunday, it’s that he hasn’t really been pushed in this tournament. His draw started out looking like it could be extremely tricky, but the most difficult opponent he wound up facing on the way to the final was Tomas Berdych, who, well, you know. How will Federer respond if and when he faces real adversity in the final? What happens if he drops the opening set and Cilic starts getting comfortable?

But you can only beat the opponent in front of you, and nothing Federer has or hasn’t done this fortnight gives any indication that he won’t be up to the task of handling Cilic, who he’s beaten eight times in nine career head-to-head meetings. It’s still amazing that, after being stuck on 17 majors for four-and-a-half years, he could leave Melbourne with 20. Appreciate this dude.

Drinking the Marin-Aid

Don’t sleep on Cilic, who’s gotten better with every match in Melbourne. For him, everything starts with the serve, and if that part of his game is humming, he’ll have a chance. His path to victory involves applying constant pressure and keeping Federer on the defensive.

He needs to get ahead in points early, and keep his foot on the gas. He must be willing to go for broke, and keep going for broke even if his unforced error count starts to pile up. He can’t afford to get dragged into Federer’s cat-and-mouse baseline game, and he can’t afford to let Federer move forward and push him back. The one time Cilic beat Federer – and man, he really beat him – Federer never got his legs into the match, and won just 11 points at net.

Fortunately, Cilic has been practicing those good habits in the lead-up to the final. He ripped 83 winners in his quarterfinal win over Rafa Nadal, and won an absurd 90 percent of his first-serve points in the semis against Kyle Edmund. For the tournament, he’s approached more than twice as frequently as his opponents, and no one has won more than 60 percent of their net points against him.

Perhaps most importantly, Cilic needs to build some momentum and belief early on. Getting the first break of the match could be huge.

What to expect

A closer match than last time, but a familiar outcome.

Cilic has been playing too well this tournament, and especially in the second week, to completely rule him out. The weight and depth of his strokes can create problems for Federer, who doesn’t always counterpunch well (consider his first set against Berdych in the quarters, before Berdych Berdych’ed).

At the least, Cilic should be able to break Federer’s unblemished run by taking a set off him. Expecting more than that is a big ask.

THE PICK: Federer in 4 sets

HOW TO WATCH: ESPN (U.S.) or TSN (Canada), Saturday at 3:30 a.m. ET.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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