Federer beat Marin Cilic in one hour and 41 minutes to become the first man to win eight Wimbledon titles but, in reality, the contest was over as soon as the Croatian slumped in his chair at the changeover, a towel draped over his head, sobbing bitterly. Cilic was in pain from a blister, and the frustration of being unable to give everything was overwhelming.
«It was very, very difficult to deal with it. It didn’t hurt so much that it was putting me in tears. It was just that feeling that I wasn’t able to give the best,» Cilic explained. He was trailing by a set and a break at that point, and Federer simply turned the screw, winning 6-3 6-1 6-4 without fuss.
It was, indeed, a crying shame that the final, and the championship, had to end that way. The crowd was desperate for a five-set classic – a repeat of last year’s quarter-final when Federer recovered from two sets down to beat Cilic – so much so that the afternoon will be remembered for another first: a Centre Court U-turn.
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Federer began as the clear favourite, a booming cheer erupting as Cilic scuffed a nervous forehand into the net on the opening point. But once Cilic’s distress was apparent and the final developed into a procession, the crowd switched allegiance, roaring the underdog’s every small triumph in true Wimbledon tradition.
In the end, only Federer was happy with the ease of his victory. «People want to see a tighter match – I totally get it,» he said. «But I’ve had those! I’m happy it was different today.»
No-one was more disappointed than Cilic by the manner of his defeat. He reached this stage at the 11th attempt – only his compatriot and former coach Goran Ivanisevic needed more – and he deserved better than his crowning moment to end in injury. «You go through so many things just to get your body ready for everything. Such a small thing can play a huge difference,» he added.
Ahead of the championship, the giant Croat was one of three players capable of beating Federer 2.0 on grass and all three – Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic were the others – bowed out injured. Such good fortune means this historic win will not be remembered as one of Federer’s most polished Wimbledon successes, even if he is the first player to win the title without dropping a set since Bjorn Borg in 1976.
It started with an injury – Alexandr Dolgopolov retiring in the first round – and ended with Cilic sobbing under a towel, but admirably refusing to throw it in. As Federer acknowledged, this was not as challenging as his three meetings with Andy Roddick, the epic victories over Rafael Nadal in 2006 and 2007 or Murray’s valiant effort in 2012.
Now that the caveats are out of the way, it is time to laud the greatest male tennis player in history. That Federer, who is six years older than Murray, Djokovic and Cilic, is still at the peak of his powers is one of the many extraordinary things about him. This triumph confirmed him as Wimbledon’s greatest and oldest male champion and took him onto 19 Grand Slam titles, four clear of the next male challenger Rafael Nadal.
It has always been relatively easy to describe Federer’s talent – his grace, style and fluidity – but it is more difficult to explain how he has combined beauty with perfection, leading to so much success. Asked to do so, even he seemed at a loss for one defining reason.
Consistency, he said, was the key, before naming his ambition, his coaches, his family as other factors. «Then in the game, I guess, I was blessed with a lot of talent, but I also had to work for it. Talent only gets you that far really,» he added.
You can say that again. Federer has now reached the stage where comparisons within tennis no longer feel sufficient and attempts will be made to rank him among sport’s greatest champions. Certainly, he has a case to be greatest sportsman still active – and he is not finished yet.
His comeback to win here and in January’s Australian Open has been remarkable, particularly as people have been writing off Federer for years. Some even said he was in decline after the legendary defeat to Nadal here in 2008, and his detractors have increased since he lost to Djokovic in the 2015 US Open. Indeed, after beating Murray in 2012, he did not win another Grand Slam until Melbourne.
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But Federer could finish this year back in the world top two in the world — who is writing these scripts? — and his willingness to take tough decisions, like skipping Roland Garros last month, has rejuvenated him. If the victory over Cilic was tainted, there may be more polished glories to come.
«Could I play at 40? If health permitting, and everything is okay! You could take 300 days off beforehand, just prepare for Wimbledon, put yourself in a freeze box, then you come out and train a bit, you know you’re not going to be injured,» he joked.
«I don’t know how much longer it’s going to last. I have no idea. But I just got to always remind myself that health comes first at this point. If I do that, maybe things are actually possible I didn’t think were.»