When Novak Djokovic won the Australian Open in 2008, the first of his 12 grand slam titles, he was asked: how did you do it? His answer was brief and it was telling.
“I didn’t have to play Roger in the final,” he said, beaming from ear to ear.
Djokovic had beaten Roger Federer in the semi-finals in Melbourne two days earlier, but a grand slam semi-final and final are two very different beasts, particularly when Federer is included in the cast list.
Back then, Djokovic and Andy Murray were in the process of expanding the duopoly at the top of the rankings (Federer and Rafael Nadal) and turning it into the Big Four. But before Djokovic had secured his membership of that elite club, he had played Federer in the US Open final in the September of 2007 and he had reeled away, beaten in straight sets.
He had experienced the might of Federer in a major final, he had felt the heat of the maestro’s competitive fire as he homed in on another trophy. No wonder Djokovic attributed his Australian success to a distinct lack of Federer.
Marin Čilić found himself in the same position three years ago at the US Open. He faced Federer in the semi-finals and absolutely crushed him. Čilić was brilliant that day and the Great One could do nothing to stop him. From there, the tall Croat headed to the final, clobbered an exhausted Kei Nishikori and, at last, he was a grand slam champion. But he didn’t have to play Roger in the final.
Today is different. Today Čilić and his thumping serve will have to play Roger in the final. Somehow, he has to do that which only Djokovic (who eventually got over his fear of the Swiss in major title matches) and Rafael Nadal have done before in SW19: he has to stop Federer’s march to the trophy. But how?
Last year, in the quarter-finals, the Croat was one point away from beating Federer. But he didn’t. He lost in five sets. And that was against Federer with a fragile left knee and a million doubts swirling around in his head.
It was not long before Federer was all but written off. He had not won a major trophy since 2012 (when he beat Murray on Centre Court) and he had had knee surgery four months earlier. The knee still did not feel right as he came to Wimbledon and when he announced, after losing in the semi-finals, that he was going to take the rest of the year off, no one believed that he could come back. Not at his age.
But as Tomáš Berdych pointed out on Friday having just been clumped by the world No.5, age just does not seem to apply to Federer.
“I don’t see anything that would indicate really Roger is getting older or anything like that,” Berdych said. “I mean, I think he’s just proving his greatness in our sport. That’s very simple.
“He’s doing the things the very right way. You have to be the unique one for that. It’s not just that, OK, you’re going to take a half-year rest. If I take a half-year rest without a tournament, I don’t have to come back. Things don’t work like that for everyone.
“It’s very nice that he’s proving that this is the ideal way. But it just doesn’t work for everybody.”
Then again, no one has ever been able to do what Federer does. He started his career as the graceful, fluid magician with a racket. He played shots that no one had even thought of much less tried and he had the crowd in the palm of his hand. We had not seen tennis like this and we could not get enough of it.
But, as Nadal became a serial French Open champion with his heart set on winning in SW19, Federer’s game began to change. Djokovic and Murray were making their presence felt, too, and as these three set about the Swiss’s reputation and record from the baseline, they pushed their prey away from the net and made him retreat to the back court. And there he stayed for season after season.
There were some who said that he was simply being stubborn: if that was the way the modern game was being played, he would take on its exponents and beat them at their own game. There were others who said he was just being prudent: to take risks against these muscular men with mind-bending defensive skills was simply daft. As for Nadal, he did not want to see Federer anywhere near the baseline – he wanted him several yards behind it, running himself ragged.
And then, as Federer took his sabbatical last year, he and his coaches, Ivan Ljubičić and Severin Lüthi, came up with a very simple plan: the old GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) would play to his strengths and not to anyone else’s. Attack was the greatest form of defence. So when Federer found himself a break down to Nadal in the fifth set of the Australian Open final six months ago, he did what his coaches told him to.
“I told myself to play free,” Federer said. “That’s what we discussed with Ivan and Severin before the matches. You play the ball, you don’t play the opponent. Be free in your head, be free in your shots, go for it. The brave will be rewarded here. I didn’t want to go down just making shots, seeing forehands rain down on me from Rafa. I think it was the right decision at the right time.”
It was: he won.
So now the free-thinking, free-playing champion of seven previous Wimbledon championships has his chance to make history and become the only man ever to win eight. That would bring his career tally to 19 grand slam trophies. And he gets to do it on his favourite court in the world.
You can bet your last Rolo that somewhere in the depths of the All England Club Marin Čilić is wishing that he didn’t have to play Roger in the final.