What Australian Open champ Roger Federer does defies logic

MELBOURNE, Australia -- As he had been the entire tournament, Roger Federer was cool and composed until the very end of his match. He stood at the podium on Rod Laver Arena on Sunday, addressing the crowd with a new piece of hardware in his right hand and running off a long list of thank yous.

But as he got to the end of his remarks, Federer broke down and cried. It was the moment, the pressure, the emotions leading up to the match. You'd think he'd be used to it by now, but the feeling never gets old.

Federer won the Australian Open championship with a 6-2, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 win over Marin Cilic. In the past 12 months, Federer has won back-to-back Aussie Open titles and three Grand Slam championships in all to bring his total to 20 (extending his own record).

He accomplished his latest major at 36 years, 173 days, making him the second-oldest player to win a Slam in the Open era. That, clearly, will make a grown man cry.

"I'm happy I can show emotions and share it with the people," Federer said during his on-court speech. "If I got emotional, it's because it was a full crowd again. This is for them also."

Federer has had better stretches in his career, especially that incredible run from 2005 and 2007, when he won eight of 10 Grand Slam titles. Yet you can argue that his accomplishments these past 365 days are more impressive because of what he had to do to get here.

Who wins a major after being away from competitive tennis for six months? Not only that, but before he beat Rafael Nadal here in 2017, Federer hadn't won a Slam in more than four years. That's a long time. It's been a while, but you might have forgotten about the whispers before last year's win.

Federer's top rivals (Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray) are younger and more athletic. Not only that, but Federer's body was failing him. He was in the twilight of an amazing career. Done.

But there was Federer on Sunday making a nervous Cilic miss so poorly that the 29-year-old Croatian was forced to change his racket just two games into the match.

Federer bounced effortlessly in that first set, strategically moving Cilic around the court as if he were a chess pawn. From there, the match was more competitive; at one point, it even appeared Federer was in real trouble after the fourth set. But then Federer regrouped and ran away with the fifth for the win, capping off an astonishing 12 months.

Federer is playing arguably the best tennis of his career after a drought that was so long we didn't even think of him as a legitimate threat to win a major anymore. The rebound is unprecedented.

Can you name another all-time great athlete who has come back from such a sharp decline to achieve greatness again?

True, Michael Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to three championships, retired for nearly two years, then came back to win three more titles. That was something special, but he was still in the prime of his career when he returned. Federer was 35 -- ancient for a top-level tennis player -- when he started winning again.

Perhaps if Tiger Woods can return back to championship form and win a few majors following the derailment and decline of his career that began in 2009, maybe we'll see something that rivals Federer's current run. But what are the odds of that?

When Federer finally met with the media nearly two hours after his match, he was wearing a T-shirt with the letters RF superimposed on the number 20. Even though that apparel will show up soon on the shelves of a sporting goods store near you, he said he didn't give that number too much thought going into the final.

"I was not allowed to think of it," Federer said, "because that's exactly when things go bad, when you think too far ahead."

As he got closer to the title, "20" eventually crossed Federer's mind in the hours leading up to the final match.

"All day I was thinking, 'How would I feel if I won it? How would I feel if I lost it?' I'm so close, yet so far," he said. "I've had these moments in the past, but maybe never as extreme as tonight."

Federer came through and completed a 365-day cycle that defies logic. There's just no other way to put it. And he's doing it at a time when the other elite players in the game are not in a great place.

Murray had surgery before the Australian Open and never played. Djokovic attempted a Federer-like comeback after a long hiatus, but he was bounced here in the fourth round. And Nadal had to retire in the fifth set of his quarterfinal against Cilic.

Then there was Federer, the senior member of that group, hoisting the Australian Open championship trophy.

Again.

Asked how long he'll be able to play at this high of a level and against players who are bigger, stronger and younger, Federer said, "I have no idea. I've won three Slams in 12 months. I can't believe it myself. I just have to keep a good schedule, stay hungry and then maybe good things can happen."

We have no doubt they will.