But he proved the pundits correct, defending the title he won much more unexpectedly last year, when he was returning from a six-month break to heal a lingering knee problem.
That remarkable victory meant so much to him, but Sunday night’s five-set victory over Cilic meant a great deal, too. Federer broke down in tears — not for the first time in Melbourne — during the trophy ceremony.
“The fairy tale continues, for us, for me,” he said, looking toward his team and his family in the players box and fighting to keep his composure. “After the great year I had last year, it’s incredible.”
It is one of the more remarkable examples of staying power in sports history, and though he did not lose a set on his way to Sunday’s final, Cilic pushed him to a fifth with his huge groundstrokes as Federer’s first serve deserted him in patches.
What had started as a rout, with Federer winning the first set in just 24 minutes, turned into a much more complicated matter.
But Federer fought off two break points on his serve in the first game of the fifth set and then broke Cilic in the next game. He challenged a second serve at 30-30 that turned out to be a double fault, then hit a deep return on the next point that Cilic failed to handle.
Federer held serve to up by 3-0 in the next tense game and then accelerated to the finish line.
It all seemed fresh and new here last year, and Federer, who had not won a major title since Wimbledon in 2012, headed merrily home to Switzerland with a replica of the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup, the trophy awarded to the Australian Open men’s singles champion.
Federer took celebratory photos with “Norman” high in the Alps.
“I’ve had dinner with Norman, spent a lot of time with Norman,” he said straight-faced in February. “I know it’s just a replica, but that’s all right.”
At that stage, he genuinely believed that might have been his last major title. Instead he has gone on to win Wimbledon for the eighth time, and now the Australian Open to increase his record total of men’s Grand Slam singles titles.
It has been nearly 15 years since Federer, with a ponytail and stubble, won his first major at Wimbledon. It has been 14 years since he won his first title in Melbourne — with a ponytail and no stubble.
But while the other members of his peer group have retired (see Marat Safin, Andy Roddick and Juan Carlos Ferrero) or become very occasional doubles specialists (see Lleyton Hewitt), Federer keeps adding loot to his collection and layers to his legacy.
Even his younger rivals are suffering physically. Andy Murray, 30, just had hip surgery. Novak Djokovic, 30, played here after a six-month break because of elbow problems, but he was still in pain and is now considering surgery. Stan Wawrinka, 32, returned in Melbourne from knee surgery and looked nowhere near top form as he lost in the second round to the American outsider Tennys Sandgren.
Injuries have forced Nadal, 31, to withdraw or retire from his last two official tournaments. Against Cilic in the fifth set of the quarterfinals here, Nadal retired, but he will retain his world No. 1 ranking on Monday.
Yet Federer glides on at an age when nearly all of the great men’s players have moved on.
“There’s some good young guys coming, but we need Roger for a little while longer,” said Neville Godwin, the coach of Hyeon Chung, the rising star from South Korea who retired here with blisters on both feet during a semifinal against Federer.
With his sixth triumph in Melbourne, Federer tied Djokovic and Roy Emerson for the most Australian men’s singles titles. He is now 9-1 against Cilic, whom he defeated in last year’s Wimbledon final in straight sets.
During that match, Cilic, suffering from deep foot blisters of his own, cried in frustration during a changeover at his inability to compete at full strength.
He and Federer have since spent an increasing amount of time together off the court.
Last September, they were part of the winning European team in the inaugural Laver Cup, the event created by Federer and his management company. In late November, they ended up vacationing on the same island in the Maldives, where they had drinks and dessert and even practiced together twice.
“We were both looking for a hitting partner, and it happened that we were there,” Federer said. “It was the weirdest thing.”
But on Sunday, they exchanged tennis blows in a much more public place, and as has been the case so often in the last 15 years, the man who ended up as the champion was Federer.