And so it was Marin Cilic who accepted the role of pantomime villain in tomorrow afternoon’s grand production of the Roger Federer show.
It will be the 6ft 6in Croat who will try to stop the crowd’s darling from collecting an historic eighth Wimbledon title; it will be the likeable bloke from Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina (who, together with his $18million fortune, now resides in tax-free Monte Carlo) who will stand, Canute-like, and try to repel the waves of brilliance crashing towards him.
He has done it once before, though. In seven meetings, he has beaten Federer once. And when he did, he went on to win the US Open two days later, his only grand slam title to date. But the last time he met Federer on a grass court was here last summer and he lost in five tight, fraught sets – and that was when Federer was struggling with a dodgy knee. His chances may be slim but after waiting for 11 years to reach his first final in SW19, he has to believe that anything is possible.
He booked his place with a 6-7, 6-4, 7-6, 7-5 win over Sam Querrey, pictured, who is another man with a huge serve and no experience of life at the very sharpest end of the Wimbledon championships.
It was not what you might call tennis for the purist. For four minutes shy of three hours, the two big fellas pelted each other with aces and service winners while the crowd waited patiently for them to finish (their hero Federer was due on next. The two rocket launchers were merely the warm-up act).
Over the course of the 271 points contested in yesterday’s sunshine, only 13 involved rallies of nine shots or more and only 46 needed between five and eight shots to complete. That left 212 points of biff-bash-bosh. Or in the case of the 38 aces and 108 unreturned serves they shared between them, biff.
Occasionally, one of those rallies would break out and, when it did, the odds were on Cilic to win it. Big Sam can move quickly but with his size 14 feet, he has a wide turning circle (think Herman Munster with a racket) so the more Cilic made him lurch from corner to corner, the more chance the Croat had of winning the point. But it was rare that we ever got to that.
Querrey is a very decent soul; no one has a bad word to say about him. Alas, he is not one of nature’s intellectuals and when he beat Andy Murray on Wednesday, he was asked to describe himself in a sentence.
“I’m ranked 26, pretty good grass court player,” he said. “That’s about it.”
He only had two facts to offer and one of them was wrong. His ranking is actually No.28 in the world but what is a digit or two amongst friends? As for the grass court expertise, that was being eroded by the weariness in his legs. He had been taken to five sets three times in the previous four rounds and whenever Cilic got his nose in front yesterday, the tiredness in Querrey’s movement became all too obvious.
Then again, whenever Cilic moved ahead, his nerve endings started to fray. Cilic won the third set and yelped with delight. Querrey broke early in the fourth set and grinned. Cilic broke back for 4-4 and Querrey said a very rude word (although this was drowned out by the roar from Cilic and the cheer from the crowd who realised that this would soon be over and Federer would soon be on court).
When Cilic broke again 10 minutes later to earn his place in the final, his smile could be seen from space. But whether he will still be smiling by teatime on Sunday depends on Federer: the script has Cilic marked down as the villain but at least he had given himself a chance to steal the leading role.