THE greatest player of all time. And one of the worst Wimbledon finals of all time. At the age of 35, Roger Federer re-stated his sporting immortality on Centre Court yesterday by becoming the oldest man in the Open Era to claim the SW19 singles title but only the Swiss superstar is capable of racking up a record eighth Wimbledon crown in such a strangely anti-climactic fashion. “Okay, it wasn’t a five-set thriller,” he said afterwards. “But I’ve had those.”
Visitors to this patch of grass in South West London have been spoiled by the standard of their recent men’s singles showpieces – think Federer-Nadal (twice), Federer- Djokovic (twice), Federer v Roddick in 2009 and Andy Murray’s two epic wins here – but the main sense of jeopardy yesterday was whether his opponent would be fit to finish the match or if Federer would also become the first player since Sidney Wood in 1931 to pick up a Wimbledon singles title by default. So troubled was his opponent Marin Cilic with a blister on his foot that at one change of ends during the second set he sat quietly sobbing into his towel, requiring the reassurance of the doctor, trainer and tournament referee before going back out there.
Instead, the last man standing at a tournament dominated by early retirements is the one man who has always been determined to do anything but. Thank goodness for that. Five years after his last title here, this 35-year-old’s body has proved more robust than the rest of the field, with no little thanks to the six months he took off to allow last year’s knee injury to heal. Comparisons were rightly being drawn last night with some of sport’s other golden oldies like Muhammad Ali, Jack Nicklaus, Lester Piggott and Serena Williams.
Having cantered through this event without dropping a set, his presence was only required on court for 11 hours and 47 minutes. Having racked up another £2.2m, the sport’s first hundred million dollar man can clearly command quite an hourly rate. But he is worth every penny.
On the day that he overtook seven-time winners Pete Sampras and William Renshaw in this tournament’s roll of honour, there was even a new twist on the celebrations after this 6-3, 6-1, 6-4 win, on the 30th anniversary of Pat Cash inaugurating that famous climb to the players’ box. Three of Federer’s four children – their names are Lenny, Leo, Charlene and Myla Rose – were whisked out for the trophy ceremony, their feet dangling on the commentary box roof in a manner which health and safety may have disapproved of. “They come for the finals, I guess,” said the Swiss. “They think this is a nice view and a nice playground.”
In fact Centre Court is Federer’s playground. But just because you have 28 previous Grand Slam finals under your belt, 18 of them resulting in title wins, that doesn’t mean you don’t get nervous from time to time. Whether it was thoughts of a straight sets US Open semi-final defeat in 2014, or the match points this opponent had against him in the quarter finals here last year, something was afflicting Federer early on here, as he threw in uncharacteristic double faults and unforced errors.
With Croatian colours adorning the Cilic players’ box – his countryman Ivan Ljubicic, a key cog in Federer’s team sat just over the way – the No 7 seed came out swinging, striking the ball cleanly and aggressively from either wing. Hoping to emulate his former coach Goran Ivanisevic as the last Croat to win this title, on his 11th attempt to Ivanisevic’s 14, he even carved out the first break point of the match as Federer served at 1-2. It was also his only one. From the moment Cilic let him off the hook with a forehand flew long, this was to become another Sunday stroll for the sport’s greatest ever player.
The Swiss is a master of knowing when to ratchet the pressure up a notch and now was the time. A rare point where the two men challenged each other at the net – Cilic slipping as he dinked the ball cross court, and Federer’s supreme powers of anticipation getting him there with time to spare – did further damage and the break came when Cilic was only capable of sending a backhand into the net in response to a heavy Federer ground stroke. A double fault on set point left Cilic with a mountain to climb.
It was then, two early second set service breaks later, that he started to tear up. “It was just emotionally that I knew on such a big day that I’m unable to play my best tennis,” Cilic explained. “It was a combination of all emotions because I know how much it took for me to get here.”
With an almighty roar, the No 7 seed re-entered the fray. Not that it did him much good. After a dismissive Federer backhand return set up another break point, the Croat’s volley flew long and his opponent had a 5-1 second set lead which he duly served out.
Cilic regathered himself during another lengthy break to get his foot re-sprayed and taped but a glut of unforced errors arrived at 3-3 and Roger was ruthless. Fittingly, for a man who has served more than 10,000 of them, history arrived with an ace. The great man will bring the most famous trophy in tennis in his kit bag when he arrives in Glasgow later this year to play in the Andy Murray charity event. It seems unlikely that he will be persuaded to put it up for grabs.