Wimbledon 2016: Roger Federer fights back from brink to reach 40th Major semi-final

Roger Federer comes from two sets down to beat Marin Cilic and reach the semi-finals of Wimbledon 2016

Milestones. They don’t mean much to Roger Federer – well not any more.

With so many records already stacked alongside his name, perhaps it is easy to become blase, but that would be the wrong word. Federer is simply focused on the next match, and beyond that, the bigger prize.

Asked after his fourth match here about equalling the Wimbledon record of 14 quarter-finals and equalling the Grand Slam record for singles wins—his 306th matching Martina Navratilova—his view was very much the long one.

“It’s probably going to be something I’m happy I achieved looking back when it’s all said and done. I didn’t even know I was playing for that. So it’s great news, very happy about it, but it’s not something I ever chased.”

However, asked a broader question about his ambitions for the future, in life and tennis, he became clearer.

“In life there’s so much more to come. In tennis, tennis there’s not that much more. I hope there is a bit more. I hope I can win Wimbledon one more time. That would be nice.”

A reference, if it were needed, both to his age—and should he indeed win here, at almost 35, he would be oldest in the Open era to do so—and to his love of this tournament above all others.

It was here that he won both singles and doubles junior titles back in 1998. Here, too, that he won his one and only match against fellow seven-time champion Pete Sampras, 7-5 in the fifth set, in the fourth round in 2001—and on his way to the first of those quarter-finals. Here, in 2003, that he won the first of what would become 17 Majors.

For the last two years, he had been thwarted in the title match here by world No1 Novak Djokovic, as he was in the US Open final last year. But this year, he had seen Djokovic, his scheduled semi-final opponent, unexpectedly beaten in the third round. If he could reach his 40th Major semi-final with a record-equalling 84th match-win here, he would face someone else.

His problem first, however, was another Grand Slam champion, a certain Marin Cilic, whose only Major title had come via victory over Federer in their last meeting. It was the US Open semis in 2014, and it had been blistering straight-sets win from the tall Croat.

Federer had searing memories of it: “Everything he touched went in. It was alright, here is a chance, boom. That’s kind of how it was for three straight sets. I didn’t play poorly in any way. It was just all on his racket. It was very seldom that I was blown off the court like that… it was unbelievably impressive how he finished that tournament.”

This time, too, Federer arrived after one of his toughest ever seasons—injury, illness and more injury. He was still without a title in 2016, even at his eight-title-winning stomping ground of Halle.

Certainly he was wearing the rust off his game with each round, but Cilic was another level, and it showed.

There was nothing between them in the opening games, both serving to love. All at once, Federer got two break chances in the fifth, but they were quickly snuffed out with some huge Cilic forehands. They headed to a tie-break.

Now the Cilic serving came into its own—he went 18 from 19 on first serve—as Federer’s wavered. The Croat went 5-0 up and eventually closed out the set, 7-6(5) when he punished a growing number of second serves from Federer.

The Swiss serving came under increasing pressure in the second set as he hit only 42 percent of first serves into play, and Cilic was clinical in stepping in to fire his returns, focusing flat and hard to Federer’s backhand wing. It earned a break in third game, and Cilic followed two double faults in the next with a clutch of 130mph serves to hold. There would be not another chink in Cilic’s armour to the set’s conclusion, 6-4.

Federer continued to live dangerously, netted a drop-shot attempt for 0-30 but held. He faced 0-40 and in seventh game to a soundtrack of groans, as the partisan crowd recognised that a break here could effectively end the match. But Federer held on: Not only that, he found his best returning of the match in between some extraordinary 136mph deliveries from Cilic to reach break point, and the Croat double faulted. Federer served it out, 6-4.

Nine times in his career, Federer has come back to win from 2-0 down: Was this the start of the 10th?

The fourth set was a nail-biter, as first one then the other fought off break points. But each held on until Federer served at 4-5 and faced a first match point: He survived. At 5-6, he did it again—with two aces. It would take another tie-break.

Federer escaped 3-6 when an out call was reversed by a millimetre. They levelled at 6-6 before Federer faced another match point. After two and three-quarter hours of high-octane, high-tension tennis, it was all square, 7-6(9).

The fifth lived up to the occasion, too: High-quality, edge-of-the-seat tennis but now with a slight momentum shift to Federer, serving first. Cilic survived a break point in the sixth game, and one more in the eighth as Federer began to slot passes down both wings.

The break when it came, though, was courtesy of a cross-court winner, 5-3, and the Swiss served it out with his 27th ace of the match, his 67th winner to just 24 errors.

On any other day, Cilic’s 59 winners, 23 aces to 36 errors would surely have won the match, but the victory finger of Federer pointed skyward told otherwise.

Federer had run 2,650 metres, 500 more than his next opponent, and spent 45 minutes more on court than his next opponent, Milos Raonic, who also happens to be a decade younger than Federer.

No6 seed Raonic fired 58 winners to just 16 unforced errors in an attacking tour de force against Sam Querrey to reach the semis here for the second time, 6-4, 7-5, 5-7, 6-4.

It so happens that Raonic has one more card up his sleeve, a straight-sets win over Federer in the their last match, the final of Brisbane at the start of the year. He will be hard to stop… but then the Swiss record maker, into that 40th Major semi, is made of pretty tough stuff—even at almost 35 years of age.

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