Momentously, Federer snared a male-record eighth Wimbledon singles title, became the oldest Wimbledon champion of the Open Era, became the oldest Grand Slam champion since Ken Rosewall in 1972 and said, “My heroes walked the grounds here and walked the courts here.” Lamentably, Cilic came off two recent-years Grand Slam matches with Federer in which Cilic was the better player all told, and wound up saying he wept over “a feeling that I knew that I cannot give my best on the court, that I cannot give my best game and my best tennis, especially at this stage of my career, at such a big match.”
And: “I know how much it took for me to get here.”
Federer corralled a record 19th Grand Slam title (ahead of the 15 for second-place Rafael Nadal), took a second Grand Slam this season and arranged for an arrival in New York in late August with a stunning yet realistic chance at 20, which would have seemed farfetched only six months ago. Yet he did so with a muted response to his 114-mph ace up the middle on match point, for the outcome long since had congealed.
What confusion. Even Centre Court stopped its customary worrying for Federer and began to try to bolster the helpless Cilic, a novelty given that it joins the world’s many arenas which tilt so unapologetically toward Federer that he seems to have a bushel of nationalities, and given how it verged on obnoxious last year in helping Federer rebound from two sets and three match points down to edge Cilic. So sparse had Cilic’s bursts of excellence become through the match that at times, a 2014 U.S. Open champion ranked No. 6 in the world looked challenged even to get a ball in play.
“I want to thank the physios here,” Cilic said with his reputed grace, calling them by first names. “They helped. The last 30 hours, they were just constantly almost with me. They did as much as they could, but unfortunately I still feel the pain. Every time I had to do a reaction fast, fast change of movement, I was unable to do that.”
But then, it fit that this Wimbledon would go out limping, for it had staged a two-week limp-fest, especially on the male end. It became an epitome of the hardness of the game upon the human frame in the late 2010s. Seven players retired in first-round matches, one in the second round, one in the third, one in the quarterfinals. Two giants, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, looked hurt enough that their potential U.S. Open participation already lurks in question.
Yet atop the bale of bandages stood a 35-year-old global star, 12 months after he, too, left Wimbledon steeped in uncertainty and shut down the rest of his 2016 season. Yet in a dreamscape he called “a fairy tale,” he won the 2017 Australian Open and now combed through Wimbledon in a minimum 19 sets (with a retirement mixed in). A marvel who won Wimbledon 14 long years ago as a 21-year-old in a ponytail over which he winces nowadays could speak from an impossible summit.
“Winning eight is not something you can ever aim for, in my opinion,” he said. “If you do, I don’t know, you must have so much talent and parents and the coaches that push you from the age of 3 on, who think you’re like a project. I was not that kid. I was really just a normal guy growing up in Basel [Switzerland], hoping to make a career on the tennis tour. I guess I dreamed, I believed, and really hoped that I could actually maybe really do it, you know, to make it real.”
By the time he reached his 11th Wimbledon final to Cilic’s first, the usual 15,000 fans and the usual roughly 14,900 Federer connoisseurs settled in for competition and the treats that always bolt or dance from Federer’s racket. They got a limited ration of the latter.
A dandy point came in Cilic’s service game at 2-2 and love-15 in the first set, when both players wound up near the net, Cilic played a cunning backhand cross to the doubles line, and Federer retrieved that to direct it into the open court to rousing applause. A Federer backhand drop shot in the seventh game seemed to yearn for a string quartet at courtside. It fluttered neatly over the net and sat down to accept its applause. At 3-5, 30-all, with Cilic serving, two Federer backhands in a row seemed so rocket-launched that the crowd gasped in an attempt to comprehend. The second one blasted past Cilic at the net for the pass.
Around then, however, the anticipation had depleted. The tournament felt drained. It had witnessed a women’s finalist, Venus Williams, wearying to a closing-set 6-0 loss on Saturday, and now it had Cilic, staying in just because he doesn’t believe in retiring. “Such a small thing can play a huge difference,” he said. The men carried on, along baselines that looked like they had held two weeks of rugby, through an unsightly bouquet of Cilic errors. Cilic banged his racket against his chair. Cilic wept. The four years Federer spent without a Grand Slam title (2013-16), a normal span for about seven billion humans but not for him, were about to give way to two in one year.
“I truly believed, you know,” he said. “For me it was also important that my team believed it, as well . . . Maybe when you’re doubting yourself, they reassure you. If you’re feeling too good, they make sure you come back to Planet Earth and put you in your place . . . I did ask them the question sincerely, to everybody on my team, if they thought I could win majors again or if I could win the biggest tournaments or if I would win against the best on a regular basis. Basically, the answer was always the same from them: that they thought if you’re one hundred percent healthy and you’re well-prepared, you’re eager to play, anything’s possible . . . That’s how it played out, so they were all right. I believed them.
“I had the same feeling.”
It came true.