Roger Federer has played many great matches at Wimbledon in the past 17 years but few to match his comeback here on a warm Wednesday afternoon.
His quarter-final triumph over Marin Cilic in three hours and 18 minutes stands favourable comparison not only with his epic defeat by Rafael Nadal in the 2008 final but his near-perfect win over Andy Murray in the semi-final last year. And now he is beating a tougher, more immovable foe: time.
Federer has a month and a couple of days left as a 34-year-old tennis player. How much time remains for the adored Swiss as a champion capable of competing for the sport’s biggest prizes was hauled back into sharp focus when he prevailed in five pulsating sets to reach the semi-finals of a tournament he has won seven times. “He had no business winning that match,” said an amazed John McEnroe, the recently co-opted adviser to his next opponent, Milos Raonic, the Canadian he beat at the same point two years ago.
His 84th win here in 17 years, matching Jimmy Connors’ record, can have few equals on his Wimbledon CV for resilience, daring and, after two sets of suffering, high-class courage and intensity. He capped it with a finish from Hollywood: having saved three match points in the fourth set, he struck the final shot of the match in the fifth, his 27th ace.
This was always going to be Federer’s best chance in years, especially after the shock departure of Novak Djokovic, who was on his side of the draw. The Swiss has apparently coped with and fixed his back injury. He has been playing sublime tennis. And he has a good deal of his aura back, if not all his youthful elasticity.
Yet so wonderful a talent does he have that since the start of this tournament Federer has given his millions of fans fresh hope. He surprised everyone. “It’s not looking good,” McEnroe told his ESPN viewers as they went into a third set. “He’s one of the smartest guys ever to play the sport. He’s got to take it to Cilic now.”
Nobody could have predicted what was to follow. Cilic began to hit with an intimidating viciousness but Federer matched him. Centre Court went crazy. The impossible was again possible. He was running out of time but his heart pulsed. Cilic dropped serve with a double-fault. Federer held and trailed by only one set. The last time he came from two down to prevail was in the quarter-finals of the 2014 US Open against Gaël Monfils. Here, he hit his 20th ace to force a second tie-break, which he won to raucous acclaim.
The telling number for Federer coming into this quarter-final was 395: the minutes he had spent in winning four matches, without dropping a set and with all the effortless grace he has brought to these courts since his teenaged debut in 1999, when he lost to Jiri Novak in five sets in the first round.
Thereafter he has beaten 84 opponents. It has been a journey like no other. However many miles are left, it will not be dull. So, how long will Federer be with us? He is 35 in August. He desperately wants a gold medal at the Rio Olympics, which start next month.
Realistically he cannot win another grand slam title on the hard courts of the US or Australian Opens – certainly not if Djokovic has recovered his game or Murray continues to build on his rising form. Wimbledon is his best and only chance of more glory.
One person has played a more crucial role in deciding his future than any coach. In a revealing interview with Simon Hattenstone in the Guardian’s Weekend magazine before this tournament, Federer spoke lovingly of Mirka, his wife and the mother to their two sets of twins. “When I met her, I had zero titles,” he said. “Today I have 88, so she’s been on this ride for the whole time.”
Federer gave an honest appraisal in that interview of how he judged his past and where he sees his future. He said that after winning his first Wimbledon – at the fifth attempt, when he beat Mark Philippoussis in three sets 13 years ago – “I’d achieved my dream, and my career could stop right then, because all I’d ever wanted to be was a Wimbledon champ.”
One was never going to be enough.
He added: “I’ve heard retirement [talk] since 2009 when I won the French Open and people were like: ‘Well, what else are you playing for?’ I’m like: ‘What’s wrong with you people? Don’t you understand that playing tennis is great fun? I don’t need to win three slams a year to be content.’
“If the body doesn’t want to do it, if the mind doesn’t want to do it, if my wife doesn’t want me to do it, if my kids don’t like it, I’ll stop tomorrow. Zero problem. But I love tennis in such a big way that I don’t care if I don’t win so much any more.”
We can be sure of one thing: he cares again.
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