Australian Open 2018: Federer vs. Cilic Championship Prediction

Roger Federer vs. Marin Cilic

This should be a good match.  It may be a straight set match, but I expect that the winner and perhaps the runner-up will play well in this final.  Marin Cilic is in his 3rd career major final and has momentum both from beating people he should but also by defeating #1 seed, Rafael Nadal.

Roger Federer has won all of his 6 lead-in matches in straight sets so any anxiety he feels about being 36 should be alleviated.  Federer may need one titanic physical effort to win the championship match, but he knows that he has not spent a ton of energy getting here.

I Don’t See this as Wimbledon 2017 2.0

Federer did dominate Cilic at Wimbledon last year.  I think a lot of factors make this match different.  First, both players are apt to serve well so individual sets should be close.  Second, Federer moves so well on grass and has so much grass-court experience (consider his Wimbledon, Halle, and Olympic exploits) that Federer has a comparative advantage against anyone on grass.  Third, Cilic has injury issues at Wimbledon last year but appears to be healthy this year in Melbourne.  Fourth, Cilic reaching his second major final in three events likely means he is getting used to the dynamics of late round Grand Slam play.  Fifth, Cilic’s best career results have come on outdoor hard courts.

Cilic beat Federer en route to his 2014 US Open title.  He lost a close match to Federer in Canada in 2014.  He also lost a good 4-set match to Federer at the 2011 US Open.  Cilic also took a set off of Federer indoors at the O2 in London last November.  Cilic also earned match points versus Federer at Wimbledon 2016 before succumbing to a comeback.  All of these factors do not add up to Cilic being the favorite, but there is a navigable path to victory for Cilic.

What Each Player Needs to Do to Win

Roger Federer:

  • He has to hold serve with efficiency.
  • Cilic is a big strong guy who can tee off on returns.  Federer would love to front run, but he has to weather the storm if Cilic starts to dominate.  If winners are flying from Cilic after he hits big serves and paralyzing returns, Federer has to find ways to minimize Cilic’s momentum.  In 2014, Cilic rolled Federer for 3 sets.  At the 2011 US Open, Cilic controlled the second set, but Federer did not let him run away with the set.  Holding serve when down a break can pay dividends for Federer in future sets as it may give Cilic cooling off periods.
  • Federer needs to extend points when possible.  Cilic moves well for a player his size.  Still, big man tennis likes to set up put away shots off of stinging shots early in a rally.  If Federer can absorb a few big shots and turn the tables, it can fuel his efforts while deflating Cilic’s primary strategy.

Marin Cilic:

  • Cilic needs to impose his game and his frame on the court.  Pete Sampras stated that he didn’t feel old but that he felt “small” after his 2000 US Open final loss to Marat Safin.  If Cilic is dictating play, he can physically and later mentally disarm an opponent.
  • Returning serve with a purpose is a must.  Cilic needs to pressure Federer’s second serve.  Federer has a good, reliable, and battle-tested second serve, but no player likes to have a 1.98 m/6’6″ opponent lining up returns on their second serve.
  • Cilic must not be mentally overawed by being in a major final.  Having reached 3 major finals, Cilic should have enough familiarity to come on court and not let the opportunity cause any hesitancy.
  • Cilic has to finish if he has the chance to do so.  Federer rallied at the 2016 Wimbledon quarterfinal from 2 sets down and from match point down in the 4th set.  The Aussie crowd will likely be pro-Federer.  If Federer grabs any momentum when looking vulnerable, the crowd is likely to add to that momentum (see Connors, Jimmy 1991 US Open if one needs an example of a veteran clinging to life and being pushed along by the crowd).

My Prediction:  Cilic has reasons to believe and a real shot.  Still, Roger Federer’s current form and 8-1 head-to-head record vs. Cilic cannot be ignored.  Federer will be favored for good reasons.  My guess is Federer will have enough time in a three of five set format to figure Cilic out if Cilic is on his game.  If Cilic is not on his game, Federer likely wins in 3 sets.

Roger Federer d. Marin Cilic 6-7, 6-4, 6-4, 6-3

 

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