And this may not have been the final line-up that many anticipated when the draw was made for the 50th playing of the Wimbledon Championships in the Open era. It did not, after all, boast the defending champion and No1 in the world, nor the man who tops the Race to London, nor in fact any of the top four man in the ATP rankings.
Cilic came into the tournament as world No6, and that reflected fairly the form and quality of the 6ft 6in Croat this year and through the 28-year-old’s entire professional career. Seventeen titles from 29 finals, including becoming one of a rare breed on the men’s tour to deny the ‘big four’ both a Major and a Masters title.
This year alone, he passed the 400 match-wins mark, won a title for the 10th straight year, reached the Roland Garros quarters, giving him a complete set of Major quarter-finals, and he had put in his fourth straight quarter-final run here at Wimbledon, going on to make his first final here.
His grass preparation was, as always, outstanding. A former Queen’s winner, he made the final again this summer, having reached the semis in s-Hertogenbosch, too.
He came through some of the biggest-hitting men in the tournament: Gilles Muller beat Rafael Nadal, Sam Querrey beat Andy Murray, Cilic beat them both, along with the resilient No18 seed Roberto Bautista Agut and the evergreen grass-loving German, Philipp Kohlschreiber.
But the Croat’s season was not what whetted the appetite for this title bout. It was the nature of his previous showdowns with Federer.
Yes, Federer had more records at Wimbledon than virtually any other man, indeed more records at Majors as a whole than almost any other man. He had come back from a six-month layoff following knee surgery revitalised, reinvigorated and, as he has called it all season, ‘playing free’. Many players and former players rated his tennis as good as he had ever played, despite approaching his 36th birthday, and the evidence tended to agree.
As No17 seed, he beat four top-10 men to win the Australian Open, he beat No3 Stan Wawrinka and Nadal to win Indian Wells. In Miami, he beat four top-20 men, including Nadal for a third time, and survived two third-set tie-breakers against Nick Kyrgios and Tomas Berdych, too.
He then took the bold decision to bypass the whole clay season—one of the reasons he remains outside the top four—and focused on grass. It worked, and he arrived here with his ninth Halle title under his belt.
Here, he beat some form grass players: Mischa Zverev, Grigor Dimitrov and last year’s losing finalist, Milos Raonic, who beat the Swiss on this very court last year. Then he resisted a heavy and focused assault from former finalist and last year’s semi-finalist, Berdych.
But Federer had no doubt about the danger that Cilic posed. The Croat was one of the very names he threw into the hat from the group of men aged under 30.
“I do believe the favourites are the other players [not the younger ones]. I include the likes of Cilic into that, guys who have done it before.”
He was rightly cautious. Cilic beat Federer in swift and devastating style on his way to his US Open title in 2014. Last year, he led Federer by two sets and had three match points in the quarter-finals, a gripping three and a quarter hour battle.
For it was not just Federer who was playing well this year: Cilic had become a more confident and attacking player under the guidance of Jonas Bjorkman, who faced Federer in the semis here in 2006. He lost, but Bjorkman is a wily and hugely experienced player who won six singles titles (incidentally two of them on grass) and a staggering 54 doubles titles. If there was a player who combined the quiet temperament with forward-moving tactics on grass, it was the Swede.
And before this title bout, Federer was quick to mention the one defeat he suffered at the Croat’s hands and that gruelling contest last year:
“Last time we had a brutal match, I was two sets down. I had to get really lucky to win. Marin is a great guy, he’s a lovely guy, I’m pleased he is into his first Wimbledon final. [But] he crushed me at the US Open. I hope he doesn’t play lights out like he did then!”
That was clearly the intent here, too, though there was a lot of tension in both players, each losing their first point on serve, each taken to deuce in their opening games, each holding. Already Federer let out a “Chum jetzt”, rare so early, and rare too that he would double fault in the third game to offer up a break point.
He held, pumped again, and resisting the onslaught of power, flat and hard to the back corners. Then a drop-shot exchange, to the soundtrack of oohs and aaahs, preluded three break points, and Federer converted with a backhand.
Apparently released—able to ‘play free’—Federer threw in two love holds and one of his signature drop shots from the baseline to keep Cilic guessing. The Croat’s serve was hitting at under 50 percent, and Federer ripped another backhand to bring up break point He took game and set, 6-3, as Cilic double faulted.
Clearly something was amiss with the Croat, especially as Federer raced to a 3-0 lead courtesy of a quick break in the second set. Federer was in control, but Cilic was not. At the change of ends, he wept in apparent pain, head buried in his towel as he tried to consult medics.
The crowd cheered when he continued, but it was difficult to watch as two more break points came from a cracking backhand winner, and Federer took advantage, 5-1. An ace for a love hold rubbed salt into the wound, 6-1.
Now the root of the Cilic problem was revealed. The doctor removed bandaging from his left foot—where a blister had, it seemed, burst when he tumbled earlier in the match. It certainly gave him a new lease of life for a while, and he broke out his serve and volley to save a break point, 2-1.
He held the next with an ace, too, but in the seventh game, a couple of netted backhands from the baseline and Federer pounced for the conclusive break. Another love hold, and it was 5-3, and Federer served it out after just an hour and 40 minutes, 6-4.
It had certainly not been the compelling final that most anticipated, and a pale imitation of their meeting here last year. Perhaps all the extra hours it had taken Cilic to get this far—four and half hours more on court—had taken their toll. The emotional Croat admitted afterwards:
“I never give up in a match. I gave it my best—it’s all I can do.”
But then that also perhaps puts Federer’s form and achievement into still sharper relief. He is the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1976 to win the title here without dropping a set, and as good an advert for taking extended breaks from the tour to rest and recuperate as you will find. Wimbledon is just his seventh tournament this year and he has lost only two matches.
This one, though, will feel more sweet than the rest. He set his hat at Wimbledon at the start of the year and now he has the record eighth—14 years after is first and five years since his last.
On court, embracing the gold trophy and watched by not one set of twins but by both sets, he told the BBC:
“It means the world to me to hold this trophy, particularly when I haven’t dropped a set. It’s magical, I can’t believe it yet. It’s too much, really. It’s disbelief that I can achieve such heights. I wasn’t sure if I’d be in a final again after last year, especially after some tough losses to Novak [Djokovic] in 2014 and 2015.
“But I kept believing, and if you believe, you can go a long way in your life. Here I am with an eighth title. It’s fantastic.”
So is there still more to come from Swiss star? Well this win seals his place at the World Tour Finals, where he holds a record six titles from a record 14 appearances. By then, he could also have reclaimed the No1 ranking—and he holds the record for most weeks at No1 as well.
It all depends, as he has said time and again this year, on his health and happiness. But looking at his performances this year, there is little doubt he is both health and happy. And he reassured during his press conference:
“I totally see myself playing here this time next year. But because it’s far away, because of what happened last year, I just like to take the opportunity to thank the people in the very moment, and make them understand, yes, I hope that I’m back. There’s never a guarantee, especially not at 35, 36. But the goal is definitely to be here again next year to try and defend.”
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