Federer bypassed Roland Garros—ending an astonishing streak of having appeared in 65 consecutive Grand Slam championships—and then honed his grass court game in a pair of tuneups on the lawns in Stuttgart and Halle. He advanced to the semifinals of both tournaments, but the swiftly improving Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev cut him down in hard fought, three set matches.
And so Federer headed into Wimbledon without having garnered a title all year long; not since 2002 had he arrived at the world’s most prestigious tournament devoid of any title runs over the course of the season. The Swiss Maestro, however, moved through the first four rounds at the All England Club this time around almost effortlessly, facing adversaries who could not threaten him, performing with comfort and clinical efficiency against his meager opposition.
But today he took on the 6’6″ Croatian Marin Cilic, a formidable individual who had crushed Federer in a straight set semifinal at the 2014 U.S. Open before clipping Kei Nishikori for his one and only major singles crown. That had been the first time in six head to head contests with Federer that the big man had been the victor, and they had not met since.
Most learned observers looked for a close contest here on the grass. Cilic has never touched the full heights of his game since his splendid run in New York two years ago, and yet he has been overdue in many ways to reproduce some of the brilliance he displayed during his memorable fortnight at the U.S. Open.
Cilic gave himself every conceivable chance to succeed for the second time in a row against Federer. He was up two sets to love. He had three match points. He was on the cusp of a victory that could have brought him back much closer to where he wants to be as a tennis player. He might have given himself the single most gratifying win he has had in a long while. He stood on the very edge of an enormously important win, but the 27-year-old could not withstand a spirited stand from a man who has won the tournament no fewer than seven times, a player who is an enduring symbol of what it means to be a champion of the highest order even when facing the impending twilight of a scintillating career.
Federer toppled Cilic 6-7 (4), 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (9), 6-3 in three hours and seventeen minutes in front of a Centre Court audience that cheered his every move and played an unmistakable role in boosting the Swiss, encouraging him unabashedly to rise from the doldrums and back into his element at the end. Federer was one fortunate fellow on this occasion. He was fundamentally outplayed for nearly four sets. He was up against a powerhouse who refused to let him breathe. He was often at the mercy of Cilic, who came remarkably close to serving the Swiss off the court.
The first set was contested with quiet ferocity by both participants. The serving from these two staunch competitors was outstanding, and a tie-break seemed almost inevitable. To be sure, Federer had a fleeting opening to break. At 2-2, Cilic stood precariously at 15-40, but he responded to that challenge with character, saving the first break point with a drop volley winner, erasing the second with a thundering 127 MPH service winner down the T. He took the next two points swiftly to reach 3-2.
Federer, meanwhile, was serving with customary precision. He did not face a break point in that first set, connecting with 68% of his first deliveries, winning 80% of his first serve points and an impressive 58% on second serve. After the scare he had at 2-2, Cilic settled down nicely, although he put only 51% of his first serves in. Nonetheless, he won 18 of 19 first serve points and 11 of 18 on his second delivery.
A tie-break it would be, and Cilic got on a tremendous roll. He secured the first point in that crucial sequence when Federer miss-hit a backhand crosscourt wide. Cilic attacked on the second point to force an errant backhand pass, then unloaded on a fearsome forehand crosscourt to draw an error. Serving at 3-0, he made two first serves that were unstoppable, and that display carried him to 5-0.
Federer sustained his poise and closed the gap to 5-2, but an ace released at 129 MPH out wide enabled Cilic to build a 6-2 lead. Federer refused to go away, taking the next two points. But, serving at 4-6, the Swiss missed his first serve and Cilic stepped into his second serve return and sent a scorching forehand return down the line, coaxing a backhand mistake from Federer. Set to Cilic 7-6, seven points to four in the tie-break.
At 1-1 in the second set, Cilic broke Federer for the first and only time. The Swiss was behind 30-40 when Cilic crushed an inside out forehand and provoked a backhand error from the unsettled Swiss. It was 2-1 for Cilic, who was up a set and a break. The Croatian saved a break point in the following game with an excellent second serve down the T that elicited a netted forehand return from Federer on the stretch. Cilic held on for 3-1. Thereafter, for the rest of the set, the two superb servers were giving away nothing.
In holding at love for 4-2, Cilic unleashed three aces. In a love hold for 5-3, he closed out the game with an ace out wide at 124 MPH. And then, in the tenth game, Cilic served for the set. Down 0-15, he caught a remarkably good break as Federer netted the most facile of backhand passing shots from short range. Cilic went to 40-15, lost the next point on a clean winner off the forehand from Federer, but then closed out the set when the apprehensive No. 3 seed chipped a backhand second serve return tamely into the net.
There was Cilic with a two sets to love lead, looking fully capable of replicating his feat of halting Federer in straight sets, just as he had done in New York two years ago. At 3-3 in the third set, Cilic was indeed poised to gain a victory without conceding a set. Federer found himself in dangerous territory, down 0-40. He came forth with a 125 MPH first serve, but Cilic made a terrific return. The Croatian set himself up for an aggressive second shot from the middle of the court, but inexplicably netted a two-hander. Federer fought off a second break point at 15-40 with a guileful forehand approach behind Cilic that was too good, and then the masterful Swiss caught Cilic by surprise with a heavy, 88 MPH second serve kicker to the backhand. Cilic’s timing was thrown off considerably and he miss-hit the return out of court.
Federer quickly collected two more points in a row to hold on almost imperiously for 4-3. Cilic rallied from 0-30 to 40-30 in the following game, but Federer craftily threw in a pair of high trajectory topspin backhands that confounded Cilic, who missed a two-hander. Federer took the next point and then Cilic double faulted at break point down, allowing Federer to establish a 5-3 lead. Serving at 40-30 in the ninth game, Federer released a topspin backhand winner down the line to seal the third set 6-3.
While Federer was surely buoyant after that third set recovery, Cilic must have been somewhat anxious about his lost opportunity to perhaps close out the account. Yet he left his disappointment behind him and kept his vision on what was ahead. With Federer serving at 1-2, 15-40, Cilic had just the opening he wanted to rediscover his mastery of the match. But he sent a backhand return off a second serve from Federer into the net. That second serve was unexceptional. At 30-40, Federer produced a better second delivery at 106 MPH down the T and once more Cilic missed.
Federer gamely held on for 2-2. Now Cilic was behind 15-40 in the fifth game, but his response was magnificent. He aced Federer down the T at 128 MPH, aced him out wide at 129 MPH and then connected with a third consecutive ace out wide to earn a game point. Then Cilic released another unanswerable first serve at 130 MPH to the Federer backhand, and the Swiss hardly touched it. Cilic had held for 3-2. Both men held comfortably until Federer served to stay in the tournament at 4-5.
After an ace gave him 30-15 in the tenth game, Federer netted a backhand slice, and then he could not deal with the pace of a Cilic backhand down the line. Cilic had earned his first match point, but Federer’s second serve down the T at 104 MPH was well placed. Cilic’s return landed long. Federer held on for 5-5. And yet, at 5-6, he found himself in the same predicament. At 5-6, 30-40, Federer faced a second match point, but this one he saved majestically with an ace out wide at 120 MPH, following with another ace. He made it to 6-6 with calm authority and steely resolve.
It was time for another tie-break to decide the outcome of the fourth set, and what a wild sequence it was. Cilic was serving at 3-5 but he dealt with that danger admirably, driving a forehand winner down the line. Federer served his way to 6-4, but then revealed some surprising insecurity when he overcooked a forehand approach badly, inviting Cilic back into the set.
Serving at 5-6, Cilic aced Federer out wide at 130 MPH, and then came through with a 125 MPH service winner to the Federer backhand. The pendulum had swung again, and Cilic led 7-6. He had made it to match point for the third time. Federer was down to a second serve again, but he got good velocity on it at 108 MPH down the T. Nevertheless, Cilic should have been able to keep his return in play. But he bungled that return badly, driving his forehand return into the net, failing to make Federer play at a critical moment.
Federer travelled to 8-7 and his third set point opportunity, but Cilic counter-attacked beautifully. Federer approached with a deep backhand crosscourt slice but Cilic took his two-handed backhand passing shot up the line for a winner. It was 8-8. But Cilic double faulted to give the Swiss his fourth set point. Federer tensed up again, netting a forehand crosscourt needlessly. But he immediately made amends with a running forehand heavily sliced to the Cilic forehand. Federer was out of position as Cilic hit a forehand down the line, but the No. 9 seed directed his shot wide when he should have given himself more margin for error.
It was 10-9 for Federer. He was at set point for the fifth time, and this one went in his favor as Cilic netted a forehand crosscourt. That unforced error gave Federer an 11-9 tie-break success, and carried him confidently into the fifth and final set. Not only had Federer recovered improbably to make it two sets all, but he had the clear advantage of serving first in the final set. Although Cilic extended Federer to deuce in the first game, the Swiss held for 1-0 with excellent use of the backhand slice.
Cilic stood his ground to hold for 1-1 but Federer had his rhythm back on serve and Cilic was haunted by his missed opportunities. On his way to 3-2, Federer served two love games in a row. Cilic was in a bind in the sixth game at 2-3 but Federer let him off the hook with an unforced backhand unforced error down the line. Cilic took the next point and then aced Federer down the T at 123 MPH. It was 3-3.
Federer cooly held at 30 for 4-3. Cilic cast aside one break point in the eighth game, but a crosscourt forehand winner from the 34-year-old gave him a second chance. This one he took as Cilic missed the open court with a forehand down the line that was wide. Federer had the essential break for 5-3, and he served for the match in the ninth game. From 15-15, he took matters entirely into his own hands, closing out the encounter with three consecutive aces.
He had served 7 of his 27 aces in final set, and not once in the long contest did he double fault. Federer lost his serve only once across five sets while Cilic was broken just twice. But Cilic, who had 23 aces, served only one untouchable delivery in the final set. It was an exceedingly well played skirmish, and a classic Centre Court clash. Federer won this one largely on willpower. He could easily have lost in straight sets, might well have fallen in four sets, but ultimately got the job done in five. It was an honorable effort from one of the sport’s immortal figures at a time when many believed he was no longer capable of such an extraordinary comeback against a front line player.
The fact remains that Cilic faltered down the stretch and failed to exploit his many chances. Losing the third set was a definite blow, but that could not compare with his fourth set missed connections. He correctly assessed that he had more than held his own with Federer from the backcourt. He had served potently and wisely. He had competed unwaveringly. But he wasted one of the finest performances in his career; losing nobly was not what Marin Cilic was out there to do. He played with immense power, panache and determination, but ultimately failed.
Meanwhile, Roger Federer became the oldest man to reach the penultimate round of the singles at Wimbledon since Ken Rosewall in 1974. Rosewall got to the final that year but lost to Jimmy Connors 6-1, 6-1, 6-4. What will happen with Federer in 2016? The answer will partially depend on how much he recovers from his five set quarterfinal when he meets Milos Raonic in the semifinals on Friday.
That match figures to be a close four or possibly five set battle either way. Like today’s Federer-Cilic showdown, the Raonic appointment will almost surely be settled by the outcome of at least one and probably two tie-breaks. A fresh Federer might have the slight edge. The Swiss will have to confront another of the sport’s biggest and best servers, but he will counter with the supreme accuracy of his own delivery, which will make for a compelling confrontation.
Federer will undoubtedly be revitalized in some ways by his biggest win of the year, by making his tenth career comeback from two sets down. And yet, that can work both ways. In 2014 at the U.S. Open, he struck back boldly from two sets down and saved two match points in the fourth set on his way to a five set triumph over Gael Monfils in the quarters but then was obliterated by Cilic in the penultimate round. Conversely, in 2009 he came back from two sets to love behind and 4-4, break point down in the third set to oust Tommy Haas in the round of 16, and eventually won his only French Open crown over Robin Soderling in the final.
The road ahead remains rugged. But this much is certain about Roger Federer: he will give himself every possible chance to succeed on the Centre Court, and it will take a mighty performance from Raonic on Friday or probably Andy Murray in the Sunday final to stop this inimitable fellow from claiming a record eighth men’s title on the lawns of the all England Club. Maybe he is not quite ready to enter his twilight.