“Super-great.” Roger Federer has never been shy of praising his own achievements but just this once, no one was ready to pick him up on it.
He did, indeed, play “super-great” to pull off one of the most remarkable comebacks of his Wimbledon career to beat Marin Cilic 6-7, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6, 6-3 and reach his 11th semi-final in SW19.
It was the 10th time in his career he had come back from two sets down but this time he had to stave off three match points to do it. The first, after two hours and 20 minutes, seemed inevitable: the younger man was giving the old champion a hiding. The second, seven minutes later was surely going to snuff out the last embers of Federer’s challenge. No? Well surely the third in the fourth-set tie-break would be the end of it. Not a bit of it. Federer was simply not to be beaten.
“I fought, I tried, I believed,” Federer said. “At the end I got it done. So it was great on so many levels.”
As is the way with Federer’s career, he managed to set yet more records as he did so – he has now matched Jimmy Connors with 84 match wins at the All England Club and by winning his 307th grand slam singles match, he has more victories at this level than any other man or woman in history (Martina Navratilova is the next on the list with 306). Just to put the cherry on the cake, at 33 days shy of his 35th birthday, he is the oldest man to reach the last four since Ken Rosewall in 1974. But enough of history.
For two-and-a-half sets, Federer was toast. Cilic, all 6ft 6in of him, was doing exactly what the Swiss had predicted and was playing boom-boom tennis: boom (big serve), boom (big forehand); boom (big serve), boom (big backhand). In the five sets and three hours and 18 minutes they were on court, only nine points were contested with a rally of nine shots or more. That is nine points in a match of 332 points.
Federer had the only chances of the first set – two break points – but they were whisked away from him by two clean winners from the big Croat. After that, the old GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) was running flat out just to keep Cilic in his sights, much less keep pace with him.
“I remember just being in trouble the whole time,” Federer said. “At one point, you’re used to it. It’s not like, Oh, my God, all of a sudden there’s a match point, all of a sudden there’s a breakpoint to save. It just was continuous. After I lost the second set, anything you touch and do is crucial. You cannot afford anything anymore. You always know he’s probably going to have some break points. That break point is like match points, too. There were many more match points in my mind than just three of them today.”
The crowd, desperate to see the seven-time champion hang on, were cheering every point he won as if it were set point. But, as Cilic bullied the old champion, bruising him with every serve and every groundstroke, the Federer faithful were clutching at straws. If their man got to deuce on the Cilic serve, it was applauded like a major breakthrough.
And then Cilic got tight.
Their last meeting was at the US Open two years ago. Until that point, Federer had won all five of the previous meetings but in New York Cilic blew him off the court in three sets “as if I was nothing,” as Federer recalled. And it takes a lot to make such a mighty champion look like a nobody.
But yesterday, after what the world No.3 described as a “US Open-esque” first couple of sets, Cilic looked down. He was within a handful of points of reaching the semi-finals and then he suddenly realised how high he was flying.
Federer, meanwhile, was dredging up every ounce of nerve and experience to fend off three break points and hang on to his place in the tournament by his fingertips. And when he had done that, the match turned. Federer held, Cilic dropped serve on a double fault and the Swiss served out for the set. His dream of one more Wimbledon title was still alive, but only just.
Even so, there was a sense that this was just an ageing former champion raging at the dying of the light. Cilic was surely too big, too young at 27 and too strong for a man in his mid-30s who has been plagued by back and knee troubles since the start of the season.
What no one could quite believe as the afternoon unfolded was this was a battle-hardened fighter who was furiously stuffing pound coins into the meter to restore the mega-watt brilliance to his game. When he switched on that light, it blinded Cilic and Federer was into the semi-finals.
Can he beat Milos Raonic, another powerhouse with a bullet serve tomorrow? Who knows but if he has another bag of coins to keep feeding that meter, anything seems possible.