Steve Flink: Federer in a Wimbledon Final Always is the Central Player

WIMBLEDON- Because Roger Federer is such a beloved figure not only in tennis but across the entire world of sports, every time he appears in a major final it seems as if sports fans everywhere on the planet stand up and pay attention. They want to know if he is winning, whom he is facing, how well he is playing and what kind of challenge he may be confronting on critical occasions. Nothing, of course, matters more than Wimbledon, so observers from all corners of the globe seem to follow Federer's every move as he chases all of his historical imperatives during any given fortnight at the All England Club. What makes it even more remarkable is that sometimes his opponent is almost ignored, no matter how prodigious that player may be, regardless of that fellow's particular plight.

Especially at Wimbledon, Federer is the sport's unassailable central player, the man everyone wants to watch, the champion who enthralls the audiences like no other. Today he came onto the Centre Court with a number of objectives. He had not won Wimbledon since 2012. He was striving for a record eighth men's singles title. He was searching for a second Grand Slam tournament triumph of 2017; the last year he won two majors was way back in 2009.

There is more. He had a chance to establish himself as the first man to secure the game's showcase event without losing a set over the course of the tournament since Bjorn Borg realized that extraordinary feat in 1976. Moreover, Federer wanted to enlarge his lead over Rafael Nadal for career majors by claiming a 19th "Big Four" crown. Nadal had only last month captured his 15th Grand Slam title to close the gap to three between himself and the Swiss Maestro. And Federer was seeking to become at 35 years and 342 days the oldest men's champion in the "Open Era" to rule on the fabled Centre Court.

And yet, his opponent was driven by his own powerful pursuits. Ever since Marin Cilic swept through the 2014 U.S. Open with straight set triumphs over Tomas Berdych, Federer and Kei Nishikori to claim his first Grand Slam championship, he has wanted to back that up with more victories on the prime stages of the sport. But not until now was Cilic able to put himself into another major final. The 6'6" Croatian needed to grow into his new status, and conquer the nervous bouts he has so often suffered in important contests over the years, including an agonizing five set defeat against Federer in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon a year ago. On that occasion, Cilic overwhelmed Federer to win the first two sets and later had three match points before bowing out in five sets.

But he has worked hard to explore his full potential and has been guided recently by the coaching expertise of Sweden's cagey Jonas Bjorkman. Cilic was determined to topple Federer and thus move into the same statistical category as the women's champion Garbine Muguruza, who took her second career major the day before. This was Cilic's tenth attempt at gaining that second Grand Slam tournament title he coveted. He did not really care about being a decided underdog in this Centre Court final. I doubt it bothered him much that Federer as usual was the man most fans were talking about, celebrating and expecting to win. Cilic simply hoped to give the best possible account of himself, to create opportunities, and, ultimately, to prevail.

That was simply not in the cards. A highly anticipated final turned into a lackluster encounter as Cilic fought off an injury that cramped his style considerably from late in the first set on. Federer garnered his record 8th title in his eleventh final with regal assurance and very little opposition. He moves past Pete Sampras and Wiliam Renshaw to the very top of the all time list at the "Big W", and deservedly so. But with Cilic so compromised and ill at ease in the final, the Swiss was threatened only in the early stages of a title round contest that never came alive. Once Cilic started struggling inordinately and breaking down in tears at a changeover underneath a towel that covered his entire head, there was no longer any doubt about the outcome of the contest.

The match started intriguingly as both players fought through nerves and tried to find their bearings and establish a rhythm in the major final that means more than any of the others. At that stage, Cilic looked somewhat imposing and capable of worrying the favorite with his big hitting and his magnificent serve. Cilic trailed 15-30 in the first game of the match but a crackling forehand drew an errant backhand from Federer to make it 30-30. Cilic moved to 40-30, was taken to deuce, but then delivered a heavy kick second serve into the body to force Federer into a missed backhand return. Cilic went to 1-0 as Federer netted a backhand passing shot down the line.

Cilic now opened up off both wings and applied some pressure, reaching 15-30 on the Federer serve in the second game. Federer rallied to 30-30 with a beautifully executed forehand swing volley winner, moved to 40-30 on a netted unforced error off the backhand from the Croatian, but then double faulted wide down the T in the ad court.

It was deuce. But Federer collected the next two points for 1-1. Although Cilic missed five of six first serves in the third game, he still held at 15 for 2-1 and then he gave himself a good chance to go up a break. Federer led 30-15 in the fourth game but double faulted long down the T and then was forced into an error. Cilic had earned a break point for 3-1. Federer missed his first serve and his second delivery was unexceptional. But Cilic squandered that chance abysmally, sending a routine backhand return into the net. The big man followed with two more unprovoked mistakes—one off each flank—and Federer got to 2-2 after a brief scare.

Now the No. 3 seed surged to 0-40 in the fifth game. Cilic fought off two break points to reach 30-40 but tamely sent a two-hander into the net and lost his serve to trail 3-2. Federer's body language reflected his feeling that he was now in charge. He held at love for 4-2, missing only one first serve in that game, moving his serve around cleverly, taking complete command. He now had the upper hand. Cilic was clearly uncomfortable after falling behind. In the seventh game, he built a 40-0 lead, dropped the next two points and then double faulted for deuce.

This was a precarious moment for Cilic to say the least. He composed himself, however, nudging a forehand error from an off balance Federer and then releasing a thundering 128 MPH first serve to the backhand that Federer chipped into the net. That tenuous hold for 3-4 kept Cilic in the first set but just barely. Federer was now grooved on his serve, mixing speeds and spins, keeping Cilic off guard, masterfully picking his rival apart. He held at love for 5-3 without missing a first delivery.

Serving in the ninth game, Cilic was up 30-0 but a lucky let-cord return got Federer back into that game as the Croatian could not handle it coming forward. A miss-hit forehand from Cilic made it 30-30 and then Federer used one hard hit passing shot to set up another for an elegant winner. He was at 30-40 with a set point, but Cilic saved it with a 128 MPH unstoppable first serve. Federer, however, was unrelenting on his second serve returns. An aggressive backhand return rushed Cilic into a forehand error. That gave Federer a second set point, and Cilic double faulted. Federer had broken twice to win the set 6-3, and discerning observers were well aware that the 28-year-old was in a serious bind.

The first set was always going to be more crucial for Cilic than for Federer and now it was gone. The second set did not bring any relief for Cilic at all. Federer was serving supremely well now, finding the corners, altering his directions, keeping Cilic entirely at bay. The Swiss held at love with an ace and three more first serves that Cilic could not get back into play. Cilic fought hard to hold on in the second game, serving two aces on his way to 30-15. but lost the next three points with a succession of unforced errors, making one off the forehand and two on the backhand side. Federer held at 15 for 3-0. He had won five games in a row. Under the best of circumstances it would have been almost impossible for Cilic to beat Federer from this position, but the situation could not have been worse for the Croatian.

At the changeover after that third game of the second set, he called for the physio. Cilic had a painful blister on his foot that had first surfaced during his semifinal win over Sam Querrey. The physio and the doctor consulted Cilic at the changeover but the 2014 U.S. Open champion knew in his heart that he could not compete with any hope against his formidable rival feeling the way he did and experiencing so much pain. He cried unashamedly and put the towel over his head. For all practical purposes, the match was over, but Cilic returned to the court and battled on, knowing he was not going to win.

He served-and-volleyed on most of the points in the fourth game and bluffed his way through, holding at 30 for 1-3. He was hoping to avoid side to side movement by going forward behind his serve, but that is not a style of play that suits him and Federer knew when he saw what his adversary was doing that Cilic was desperate. Federer held easily at 15 for 4-1 and once more Cilic elected to serve-and-volley regularly in the sixth game. He got to 40-15 but eventually Federer broke for 5-1 by eliciting a forehand volley error with an adequate down the line pass off the backhand. Federer raced to 40-0 in the next game and then held at love with an ace down the T at 106 MPH. He took the set 6-1.

Cilic needed more assistance at the changeover following the second set to deal with the blister. He came out and played a good game on serve, holding at 15 for 1-0 in the third set. But he surely realized he was playing on borrowed time. This was all about self respect, competing with integrity and fighting until the end. Federer held at 15 for 1-1 with an ace down the T. Cilic made it to 2-1 after three deuces, but it was apparent to one and all that Federer would get the break sooner or later that could seal victory for him. Federer travelled to 2-2 in a deuce game and then Cilic held at 30 for 3-2 with an ace out wide at 126 MPH. Undismayed, Federer held at love for 3-3 with another cluster of finely placed first serves.

Now Federer focussed on finishing it off as swiftly as possible. From 15-30 in the seventh game, Cilic pressed on a couple of inside out forehands. Federer had the break for 4-3, held at 15 for 5-3, and served for the match two games later. Fleetingly, he got tight, losing the first point with an unforced error off the backhand. But he found a remedy right away, acing Cilic down the T, sending out two unanswerable first serves for 40-15, losing the next point but closing it all out with an ace down the T. Federer had won 6-3, 6-1, 6-4 for his record breaking eighth title on the British lawns at the All England Club.

For the crowd, it was a sad conclusion to the tournament. After Venus Williams had bowed out 7-5, 6-0 in the women's final against Muguruza with a desultory second set performance, Cilic had been beset with his blister and that had hampered his performance significantly.

As Cilic said afterwards, "It was definitely one of the unfortunate days for this to happen to me. I got a really bad blister. Even I felt it in the match with Querrey. Fluid just came down under my callous in my foot.... Every time I had to do a reaction fast, a fast change of movement, I was unable to do that."

He added later, "It was just a feeling that I knew that I cannot give my best on the court, that I cannot give my best game and my best tennis, esepcially at this stage of my career, in such a big match. It was very, very difficult to deal with it."

The audience realized that Cilic was having major physical and emotional issues. Federer did not know precisely what was going on, and just professionally got on with his business. The way he was moving, returning, and serving, he almost certainly would have won, regardless of Cilic's woes. Federer was primed for this tournament and won it for the first time since 2012. He is to be commended.

The Swiss will turn 36 on August 8. He has played two Grand Slam tournaments in 2017 and has taken both. He appeared in two Masters 1000 events in March and April and was victorious each time. He won in Halle on the grass. So Federer has captured five of the seven tournaments he has played in 2017 and in both losses he had match points—against Evgeny Donskoy in Dubai and Tommy Haas in Stuttgart. The view here is that Federer is the clear long term favorite to win the U.S. Open. The last time he took three majors in a single season was ten years ago. He just might realize that feat for the fourth time in his career, long after anyone—including himself—thought that was even remotely possible.

The hope here is that Rafael Nadal will recover the swagger had had all through the clay court circuit and play with vigor over the summer. He still is ahead of Federer in the Race to London and they will surely finish the season at No. 1 and No. 2 in the world. It would be fitting if they met for the first time ever at the U.S. Open in September, preferably in the final. Meanwhile, Federer can sit back contentedly for a while, appreciate what he just did to raise his career record in major finals to 19-10, and then turn his attention to winning the Open for the first time in nine years and the sixth time overall. He has moved beyond himself once more to a level even he might have thought was no longer attainable. It may be quite some time before he loses any of the momentum he has gained across a sterling 2017 campaign.

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