Sunday 18 February 2018

Federer fightback stuns Cilic

Swiss star produces vintage display to stay on course for eighth Wimbledon title

Cilic was shattered, Federer exultant. Photo: Reuters
Cilic was shattered, Federer exultant. Photo: Reuters

Oliver Brown

Roger Federer refuses to go gentle into that good night. Thirty-three days shy of his 35th birthday, Wimbledon's ageless aristocrat produced a performance as stirring as any in his monumental canon, rebounding from two sets down and saving three match points en route to a stunning vanquishing of Marin Cilic.

For a father-of-four supposed to be in the decrescendo of his career, whose year has been largely a story of back pain, it was a wonderfully unexpected reminder of his cussedness and will.

There was once a time when Federer responded testily to mentions of an eighth title here - "I have seven, it's not like I need any more," he snapped after defeat in the 2014 final - but he played against Cilic as if the thought consumed him.

An eighth would haul him clear of Pete Sampras and William Renshaw to seal his anointment, unambiguously, as the greatest champion ever to grace these lawns. Not that there was much doubt of that yesterday, as his astonishing riposte propelled him into a record-equalling 11th Wimbledon semi-final. Auspiciously enough, he has won his last 10.

When you are a figure of Federer's stature, you can afford the odd indulgence, and in recent years he has taken to renting two houses in Wimbledon Village for the fortnight: one for him, the other for wife Mirka and their two sets of young twins. The move is designed, apparently, to allow him more sleep. When you are still competing for grand slams at 34, every facet of preparation must be meticulously fine-tuned.


His fastidiousness is paying off. Federer swerved the French Open, breaking a run of 65 straight slam appearances, just to preserve his tilt at Wimbledon, and faith was rewarded as he sprang off the ropes to secure this rapturously-received win.

Three times he had looked down the barrel on match point, and even he might struggle to understand how he came through a tumultuous fourth-set tie-break to prevail 6-7, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6, 6-3. Cilic was shattered, Federer (right) exultant. Among the first to congratulate Mirka and the rest of 'Team RF' was David Beckham, shaking his head at the improbability of it all. Federer was relieved, mightily, but otherwise unruffled. A quick clench of the fists and it was off to a marathon massage session to soothe his ageing limbs. By his reckoning, Sunday is all that matters.

The manner of his comeback to defy Cilic was a huge psychological fillip, but Federer would recognise better than anybody that nothing is guaranteed in tomorrow's semi-final with Milos Raonic. His history of never losing in the last four, or of dismantling Raonic in straight sets at the same stage two years ago, is bunk. Federer is aware that the last time he surged back from a two-sets-to-love deficit, against Gael Monfils in New York in 2014, he was thrashed in the next round.

Still, this was a moment to cherish. For two hours, Federer looked as if he scarcely had a hope of subduing Cilic, whose bombardment of heavy groundstrokes met scant resistance. And yet at 3-3 in the third set, 0-40 down with all hope apparently lost, everything changed. A half-volley that could have flown into the stands landed in, and the Federer revival began.

Cilic did not want for opportunities in the fourth set to reassert control, carving out a match point at 6-5, but in his increasingly scrambled state he could not buy a second-serve return. His coach, Goran Ivanisevic, could only look on in horror. The fourth-set tie-break sealed Federer's ascendancy, with Cilic crumbling on a fifth set-point as a backhand hit the tape.

Tensions in the fifth were acute, but it was Federer who stayed the more composed, eking out the decisive break by leathering a beautiful forehand down the line.

One successful hold later and the resurgence was complete, as Federer paused to take in a prolonged Centre Court ovation.

He had needed this type of test. With all due respect to Britain's Marcus Willis and Dan Evans, both pummelled by Federer in the first week, he had enjoyed as seamless a ride into a Wimbledon quarter-final as could possibly be expected.

These are the matches that harden Federer, that make him wary of facing such brinkmanship again. Both times he has roused himself from two sets down at a slam - at the French Open in 2009 and Wimbledon in 2012 - he has gone on to seize the title.

Federer is the oldest man to advance to the semi-finals here since Ken Rosewall did so in 1974, aged 39.

And still the records kept tumbling: this was his 84th Wimbledon victory in 17 years, matching the record of Jimmy Connors, and his 307th at majors, taking him past Martina Navratilova as the most prolific winner of all.

"He has no business winning that match," said John McEnroe, as amazed by any in attendance at Federer's undiminished endurance.

Meanwhile, second seed Andy Murray survived a ferocious Jo-Wilfried Tsonga comeback to reach the Wimbledon semi-finals for the seventh time, winning the day's second Centre Court blockbuster 7-6(10) 6-1 3-6 4-6 6-1. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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