MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Roger Federer and Marin Cilic found themselves on vacation in the Maldives at the same time back in November and tried to give each other space for a couple days, given it was at the tail-end of a long tennis season and both needed to decompress.
Then Cilic got in touch with Federer and asked if he wanted to practice.
''No coaches, no nothing, just the two of us on the court hitting balls. It was just nice and laidback,'' Federer said. ''To get to know the man behind the tennis player, I guess.''
Fast-forward a couple of months and the two players will be on opposite sides of the net again, facing each other in the final of the Australian Open with far more at stake—Federer will be trying to add to his record Grand Slam haul with a 20th title, while Cilic is bidding for his second.
Federer joked that maybe it wasn't coincidence both of them were playing so well at the first major of the new year. ''I told (Cilic) the practice in the tropics helped us get to the finals,'' the 36-year-old Swiss star said with a laugh after his semifinal win over Hyeon Chung on Friday night.
Federer, of course, has been in this position many times before, with or without off-season hitting in paradise. He'll be appearing in his seventh final at the Australian Open and he has a fairly decent record at this stage of the tournament—five trophies, one silver runner-up plate (when he lost to Rafael Nadal in 2009).
He's also coming into Sunday's match with a huge amount of confidence after ending his 4+-year Grand Slam title drought on the same court at Melbourne Park last year—a victory that set in motion his best season since 2009 with a record eighth title at Wimbledon and a No. 2 ranking to finish the year.
Adding to his favorite status is the fact that Federer owns an 8-1 head-to-head record against the Croatian player and handily defeated him in last year's Wimbledon final, though Cilic was hobbled by blisters in that match.
Federer has looked extremely sharp in Melbourne this year, as well—he's yet to drop a set in six matches.
But he isn't looking past Cilic in the final, not by a longshot. He remembers his sole loss to Cilic all too well, a straight-sets defeat at the 2014 U.S. Open. ''He crushed me in that semifinal,'' Federer said. ''He beat me badly.''
Cilic went on to win the U.S. title that year—his only Grand Slam trophy.
''I definitely think him winning the U.S. Open, like Stan (Wawrinka) winning here a few years ago, it gave them great belief they can do it. If the big moments come about, that they can attain this level,'' he said.
''You can see it in the way he behaves on the court. He's there to win. Sometimes you see other players you feel like they're happy to have made the quarters. I think he strives for more. I like those attitudes.''
Cilic is certainly keen to show he belongs in the upper echelon of men's tennis alongside the so-called Big Four of Federer, Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. He's had considerable trouble beating the Big Four throughout his career, sporting a meager 7-39 record against them combined.
But Cilic does have a victory over Nadal in the quarterfinals of this year's Australian Open when the top-ranked Spaniard retired in the fifth set with a leg injury.
And he believes he's playing better than he was at last year's Wimbledon.
''I'm playing much, much more aggressive,'' Cilic said. ''I'm feeling that I am, for most of the shots, hitting them really, really good. From the return, moving, forehand, backhand, serving, I think everything is in good, solid spot.''
Beating Federer would also make up for the disappointment of not being able to compete at his top form in the Wimbledon final, though Cilic isn't necessarily looking for redemption.
''It was on me that I couldn't give my best in Wimbledon. And that happens,'' he said. ''For me, it's great to again be in the final, giving myself another opportunity to win a Grand Slam.''