Only per­fect dis­play will do against Fed­erer

Cilic stands in the way of the all-con­quer­ing Swiss who is play­ing the finest ten­nis of his long ca­reer

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Sport - Si­mon Briggs TEN­NIS COR­RE­SPON­DENT at Wim­ble­don

What a pity that David Foster Wal­lace is not alive to­day. The Amer­i­can nov­el­ist, for­merly a ju­nior ten­nis prodigy in Illi­nois, was once the lead­ing chron­i­cler of Roger Fed­erer’s great­ness.

It was Foster Wal­lace who de­scribed Fed­erer’s fore­hand as “a great liq­uid whip” and the man him­self as “a crea­ture whose body is both flesh and, some­how, light”. He rolled up a salvo of epi­grams into a clas­sic New York Times es­say: “Roger Fed­erer as Re­li­gious Ex­pe­ri­ence”.

Had he lived, Foster Wal­lace might have reached an even higher plane of ec­stasy to­day. At the age of 35 years and 11 months, Fed­erer is about to play his 11th Wim­ble­don fi­nal. And over the first two-thirds of the 2017 ten­nis sea­son, he has de­liv­ered the great­est ten­nis of his ca­reer.

If you don’t be­lieve me, just ask Mag­nus Nor­man, the man widely seen as the world’s lead­ing coach. At Queen’s last month, Nor­man told The Sun­day Tele­graph: “For sure, Roger and Rafa [Nadal] are play­ing bet­ter now than they were 10 years ago. They play closer to the base­line and they move much bet­ter, much faster. That’s the evo­lu­tion of the game.”

Few Wim­ble­don fi­nals have been as im­bal­anced as this one in terms of pop­u­lar in­ter­est and sup­port. Marin Cilic is per­haps less of an un­der­dog than Cedric Pi­o­line, the lit­tle­known French­man who mounted a doomed at­tempt to over­come Pete Sam­pras in 1997. But only just.

With re­spect to Cilic – who is both a fine player and a charm­ing man – he is still only Croa­tia’s sec­ond-most­fa­mous ten­nis player af­ter his own for­mer coach, Go­ran Ivani­se­vic.

Yes, he might have gone on David Let­ter­man’s show af­ter lift­ing the US Open ti­tle in 2014 – a vic­tory that Ivani­se­vic de­scribed as “fresh blood, fresh air for ten­nis”. But he has not in­spired the No­bel Prize-win­ning au­thor, J M Coet­zee, to write to his fel­low nov­el­ist Paul Auster, say­ing, “I have just seen some­thing like the hu­man ideal made vis­i­ble.”

Men of let­ters usu­ally con­sider sport to be be­neath their no­tice. Yet Fed­erer’s artistry takes him into a dif­fer­ent sphere, where he is as likely to be com­pared to Mikhail Barysh­nikov as to Rod Laver. The same artis­tic flair also makes him over­whelm­ingly pop­u­lar with the ev­ery­day ten­nis fan.

To quote Ivani­se­vic again, when you play against Fed­erer, “you are also play­ing 20,000 peo­ple”.

How­ever to­day’s match pro­gresses, one sus­pects that Wim­ble­don 2017 will be re­mem­bered not for dodgy grass, nor for rows over sex­ist sched­ul­ing, but for what hap­pens to Fed­erer. Ei­ther he be­comes the first man to win an eighth Wim­ble­don ti­tle, over­com­ing the record he now shares with Sam­pras and the 19th cen­tury gen­tle­man am­a­teur Wil­liam Ren­shaw. Or he falls at the last, show­ing an un­ex­pected hint of mor­tal­ity on the same Cen­tre Court that turned him into a sport­ing de­ity in the first place.

For to­day’s ticket-hold­ers, it is a win-win sit­u­a­tion. If Fed­erer wins, there will be a party in SW19, no mat­ter how eas­ily the job is done. If he is to be beaten, then Cilic will have to pro­duce one of those note-per­fect at­tack­ing per­for­mances – think not only of his own dash to the ti­tle in New York three years ago, but also of Stan Wawrinka’s win over No­vak Djokovic in the 2015 French Open fi­nal – that leave scorch-marks on the court.

The one thing we can dis­count is any sort of Fed­erer freeze. Re­tired ten­nis cham­pi­ons say that big points be­come harder to play as you get older. No mat­ter how hard you try to block it out, you know in the back of your mind that you might never get an­other chance. You grip the racket han­dle as if it were a lifebuoy when you should be cradling it like a baby.

Yet Fed­erer, made of dif­fer­ent stuff in so many ways, seems im­mune to such flick­ers of self-con­scious­ness. Is he too fo­cused on cre­at­ing art? Or just con­sti­tu­tion­ally im­mune to self­doubt? Ei­ther way, he has played his whole ca­reer with the cav­a­lier in­stincts of Mar­shal Foch, the French gen­eral whose re­sponse to a set­back was to roar, “Sit­u­a­tion ex­cel­lent. I will at­tack.”

Rather like Nadal’s fric­tion­less progress through last month’s French Open, Fed­erer has yet to drop a set. On Fri­day, faced with the thun­der­ous stroke­play of the heavy-thewed To­mas Berdych, he looked dis­ap­pointed even to com­mit the oc­ca­sional er­ror,

‘Roger is like some­one from a film. You have to kill him 77 times to win’

throw­ing a mini-tantrum when one of his back­hand slices car­omed off the frame.

The only time he has played with nerves all fort­night was dur­ing his sec­ond-round match against Du­san La­jovic – be­cause “I didn’t know my op­po­nent very well”. Oth­er­wise, he has been build­ing with each round to­wards some as-yet unguessed peak. Should it ar­rive to­day, then Cilic – like Berdych in the pre­vi­ous round – could be re­duced to the sta­tus of an ac­com­plice or side­kick, pro­vid­ing the set-ups for Fed­erer’s punch­lines.

It is to Cilic’s ad­van­tage that he has beaten Fed­erer be­fore at a grand slam, in the 2014 US Open semi-fi­nal. Yet there might also be scar­ring from last year’s quar­ter-fi­nal here, where he held three match points for a four-set win.

“Marin lost that game, rather than Roger win­ning it,” said Ivani­se­vic ear­lier this week, “be­cause he did not get one re­turn in on the match points. Roger is like some­one from a film. You have to kill him about 77 times to win.”

The thought might not be as el­e­gantly ex­pressed as a Foster Wal­lace es­say. But it cap­tures the mag­ni­tude of Cilic’s task to­day.

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