GAME, SET, UNMATCHED
Tears on both sides with record in hand and future in doubt
With eight titles, Roger Federer becomes Wimbledon’s winningest male tennis player,
There is the Roger Federer who averted his eyes from a sobbing opponent, never even glanced over.
But in his mind he was thinking, where is the pain and how can I exploit it? “You need to hurt him, you know, where it hurts already.” Federer couldn’t discern why Marin Cilic, hunched in his chair during the changeover, was in such agony, bawling as if something had broken.
It was the Croat’s spirit, but Federer didn’t realize that then and wouldn’t have cared.
“Because I couldn’t tell what it was, it actually made things easier,” the once and again and again and again and again and again and again and again Wimbledon men’s champion said.
“If I saw him limping around, or if I saw him pull up hurt in some place, I would start to think, OK, maybe I’ll throw in a drop shot to really check him out, then want more, because that’s what you do.”
Such an urbane and refined sport, tennis. Not at that merciless level that the Fed Express plays it, however.
He’s a Swiss ninja, faithful to the assassin’s creed. A man without pity beneath his gentlemanly exterior. It’s what made him the victor at the All England Club Sunday afternoon, hoisting the trophy for a record eighth time.
Yet there is also the Roger Federer who, as soon as the match was over — straight sets in a mere hour and 41minutes — sank into his own chair, looked up towards the box where wife Mirka was standing with the couple’s two sets of young twins, Leo and Lenny and Myla Rose and Charlene Riva, and he too burst into tears.
“This one’s for us,” he told them. He is the greatest tennis player of his era, perhaps of any era. He is maniacally focused, will do just about whatever it takes to make it all look so sublimely silky and effortless — most definitely it is not — and at age 35 years, 343 days, remains largely a jet-setting tennis vagabond. But he’s also a husband and father to a brood of youngsters. They, he indicated the other day, will determine when this whirlwind stops, if his body doesn’t tell him. And of course his body has been misinformed before, most recently a year ago when he left the court limping, defeated in the semis by Canada’s Milos Raonic, his knee requiring surgery as a result of a stumble to the court, many wondering whether the paradigm of men’s tennis would ever pass this way again.
“I have continuous discussion with my wife about the family, about my kids, is everybody happy on tour? Are we happy to pack up and go on tour for five, six, seven weeks? Are we willing to do that?”
He can look only one year ahead; at the moment he is not even certain about competing in the Rogers Cup next month in Montreal. This has been a six-month season and he’s got two Grand Slam titles to show for it, Wimbledon and the Australian Open.
Flush from his triumph on Centre Court — seven wins in a fortnight without dropping a single set — Federer could see no reason why he won’t be back at SW19 in a year’s time. Courtside, though, he’d hedged his bets, saying he hoped to be back.
“We never know what happens,” he grinned, just as he never expected to wrench his knee while bathing his kids. And it had been five long years since last he made off with the Wimbledon spoils.
“What keeps me going? I love to play. My wife’s totally fine with me still playing. She’s my number one supporter, she’s amazing.’’
Even more fundamentally, he can’t resist the lure of the Slams, and most especially this one.
“I love playing the big stages still. I don’t mind the practice. I don’t mind the travel. Because I’m playing a little less, I actually get more time in return. I feel like I’m working part-time these days almost, which is a great feeling.”
He was savouring every second of it: the standing ovation from an adoring audience, the walk to the champions’ wall to watch his name plaque being slid in again, the appearance on the balcony, trophy held aloft.
Overtaking, on this occasion, his idol Pete Sampras, whose name is listed seven times on that wall.
“Winning eight is not something you can ever aim for, in my opinion,” he said, scarcely touching on the fact it was also his 19th Slam title. “If you do, you must have so much talent and parents and coaches that push you from the age of 3 on, who think you’re like a project. I was not that kid. I was just really a normal guy growing up in Basel, 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, make it real. So I put in a lot of work and it paid off.”
He’s tennis nobility now, of course, an icon of multiple coronations, as regal as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge who watched Sunday’s match from the royal box.
Yet it was, in truth, not much of a match, steeply anti-climactic in its 6-3, 6-1, 6-4 outcome. Painful to behold, too, for anybody with an ounce of pity in their bones for poor Cilic, among the most amiable and generous-hearted players on the circuit.
The 28-year-old had finally made it to a Wimbledon final, on his 11th try, only to have a horror unfold.
Cilic, who came excruciatingly close to defeating Federer in a five-setter here a year ago — up two sets and 3-0 before it all went pearshaped — seemed off, erratic and nervous from the get-go, netting a break-point chance in the fourth game, then broken as Federer racked up six points in a row. That, unfortunately, was as taut as the match got, Cilic shooting blanks with his signature bazooka first serve.
It had been three years since Federer last lost a Grand Slam from one set up.
Broken again and trailing 3-0 in the second frame, things went dramatically weird with Cilic in the chair, sobbing into his towel. It was unclear whether he was injured — he’d stumbled in the opener — or simply distraught. A doctor, the referee, the tournament supervisor all hovered anxiously.
“It was just a feeling that I knew 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,” he explained later, after it had become obvious that a painful blister on his bruised left foot was the culprit.
“It was very, very difficult to deal with. It didn’t hurt so much that it was putting me in tears. It was just that I wasn’t able to give the best.”
As many wondered if the match would be called — a retirement in the final for the first time in 106 years — Cilic recovered his compo- sure and resumed playing. But, while winning the first game of the second set, he was only a pale shadow of the player he’d been over the past two weeks. It took grit to persevere but the looming denouement of this encounter was evident to everyone.
After Federer took the second set handily, Cilic called for a medical timeout. His foot was heavily padded and wrapped. There was some improvement from the Croat — U.S. Open winner in 2014 — in the third set but at 3-3 he was broken for the final time after losing two points in a row with sloppy netted forehands. Federer served out for the victory with an emphatic ace down the middle on his second match point.
“Throughout my career, I’ve never given up when I’ve started a match,” an emotional Cilic told the crowd. “That was also my idea today. I gave my best. That’s all I could do.
“I had an amazing journey here. I played the best tennis of my life.”
It was Federer who then cut to the quick of this fiendish sport.
“It is cruel sometimes.”
Marin Cilic’s first shot at a Wimbledon title ended in pain, with a bruised and blistered left foot leaving him in tears at times.