Picture the scene. A pub quiz, five years from now. The sports round. “Who,” the landlord begins, drink in hand, “did Roger Federer beat in the 2017 Wimbledon final, to win a record eighth title?” Blank stares. The chinking of pint glasses. A few fevered whispers.
This was the biggest day in the career of Marin Cilic, the world’s sixth best male tennis player and a former US Open champion. And yet it was never about him — not really. This was the Roger final, the hazy afternoon on which the great Swiss surpassed the seven titles won by William Renshaw and Pete Sampras to establish himself as the greatest man to ever play tennis at Wimbledon.
Roger Federer at Wimbledon
Rarely in this match did Federer seem as if he was playing against Cilic: instead he was playing against himself and the abstracts of history and perfection.
Not that Cilic, who had talked a good game ahead of this final, could allow himself to be concerned by such things. “I believe that this is Roger’s home court, the place where he feels the best and knows that he can play the best game,” he said in his penultimate press conference at this year’s Championships, before adding with a smile: “But I definitely believe in my own abilities to win.”
At what precise moment did that confidence evaporate? Perhaps it really wasn’t until one final ace whistled past his nose, and he watched Federer raise his hands to his head in now familiar triumph.
Or maybe it was before he had even stepped onto the court. This wasn’t Cilic’s first Grand Slam final, of course, but it was his first Wimbledon Grand Slam final. The esteemed walk from the competitors’ dressing room to the doorway to Centre Court takes precisely two-and-a-half minutes, and it could well have been here — as he heard Federer exchanging pleasantries with the All England Club veterans he has strolled past ten times before — that Cilic first sensed he would not be the one lifting the famous trophy later that afternoon.
More likely, however, his moment of aching contemplation came midway through the second set at 0-3 down, when a painful blister on his left foot began to severely impede his movement. Realising that history was slipping from his hampered grasp, Cilic sat himself down during a chair break, and sobbed.
“I had a sudden feeling that I knew I could not give my best on the court in such a big match,” Cilic later recounted. “And it was emotional that I knew on such a big day that I was unable to play my best tennis. All my emotions combined because I knew how much it had taken for me to get there.”
But the 15,916 spectators crammed into Centre Court had been confident of a Federer win long before the floodgates had opened. The nervous energy that crackled around this famous old Elizabethan theatre during Johanna Konta’s semi-final, or throughout Andy Murray’s troubled campaign, was notable by its absence. Instead, there was a contented hum between points, as Federer serenely went about his business.
These leisured fans had not travelled to south London to squirm their way through a competitive encounter: they had come to watch a coronation. When, at 0-30 in the fifth game of the pivotal first set, Federer improbably chased down a feather-light drop shot and somehow flicked it back around the net with balletic grace, there were audible gasps. This quickly turned into dizzied laughter. Their man was having one of those days. Isn’t he always?
Cilic, a powerful, heavy-set man who stands at an imposing 6 ft 6 in, visibly shrunk under the pressure. Federer was applauded, cheered and screamed at throughout. In contrast, the loudest cries for Cilic were reserved for when he gingerly stood up after taking a medical timeout, and when his voice faltered during his runners-up speech. The crowd may have sympathised with Cilic, but at no point did they ever support him.
He would go on to lose in straight sets in just an hour and 41 minutes: the exact same period it took Federer to beat Andy Roddick in the 2005 final. And after the trophy presentation, as Federer lapped up the last dregs of his ecstatic support and waved at his chuckling twin toddlers dangling their legs off the edge of the commentary box, Cilic quietly slinked away.
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Reappearing for his press conference, he was quick to congratulate his opponent. “I didn’t have actually time on the court also to congratulate Roger,” he said apologetically, blinking in the spotlight. “I Don’t want to put down his victory in any way as he deserved it completely. These things are part of the sport, so congratulations to him and his team for everything he did and for another title here.”
By the end, even Cilic understood. The day did not belong to him. Federer had won his record title, and the Centre Court crowd had gone home happy. He had played his role.