We all know that idiom about a cat and nine lives. On Wednesday, it seemed that Roger Federer survived that many in only one epic encounter with Marin Cilic. The Swiss great has given us several chapters of mythical magic at Wimbledon and beyond, ever since that epic victory over Pete Sampras in the English summer of 2001. And even in that transcendent collection of tennis epics, this 6-7(4), 4-6, 6-3, 7-6(9), 6-3 quarterfinal victory over Cilic will be written in golden letters and preserved for posterity.
Federer saved three break points from 0-40 in the seventh game of the third set. He saved three match points in a gladiatorial fourth set that was settled after a thrilling twenty point breaker. Just a month shy of 35, the Swiss maestro orchestrated the mother of all comebacks, producing one of the finest matches of his gilded career to keep his hopes of an 18th Grand Slam intact.
The match wasn’t about celebrating Federer’s harmony around the court. The former world No one has often played as if he embodied the departed spirit of the Russian ballet exponent Rudolf Nureyev. There has been enough prose dedicated to the sheer natural rhythm and beauty of Federer’s immortal tennis.
But the effort last night wasn’t merely about beauty and grace, though there was plenty of it. Federer did not just stare at defeat, he was locked in a death-inducing kiss with it when he was facing those three break points in the seventh game of the third set. In the end, it was all about Federer’s often ignored icy determination and guts of steel.
The 17 time major champion imposed his will on Centre Court to subdue a resolute opponent. He danced with the beast, standing firm in the face of a brutal assault from his younger opponent and prevailed. It was a night when there was plenty of art from Federer, but what counted was his persistence and an undying will to win against tennis logic.
The best of West End’s playwrights may have found it hard to match the twists and turns of this epic contest in which the protagonist hung from a cliff with just one hand, only to somehow find a way to catapult himself to a seemingly impossible triumph.
Cilic simply brutalized Federer with his monstrous serve and his beastly forehand, delivering a two punch battering to subdue the Swiss. “I wasn’t seeing his serves anymore,” explained Federer. “He had one chance, he took it, next thing you know you’re down two sets on grass, He was reading my serve, I couldn’t read his serve. It wasn’t going well. I had to hang in there, somehow hope for his level to drop a little bit and that’s exactly what happened.”
After Federer took three straight games from 0-40 in the seventh game to stay in the match, he found himself serving second in the next set. First at 4-5 and then at 5-6, Federer found himself a point from the exit door.
As if that weren’t already enough drama – Federer saved one more match point in the ensuing tie-breaker. Not to be left behind, Cilic saved four set points to deny Federer the luxury of a fifth set. The Swiss wasn’t to be denied much longer though, as he took the breaker 11-9 to force a decider.
“I was in so much trouble in the third and again in the fourth,” admitted Federer, about the two sets in which he was in a constant dialogue with defeat. “I feel sorry for Marin but for me the dream continues. I couldn’t be happier, I thought I fought well and played super-great at the end.
The final set proved a simpler puzzle for Federer. He was serving first and though he missed a break point in the sixth game, another presented itself in the eighth. Federer served up a delightful down the line forehand winner to eke out the decisive break. Moments later, three hours and 18 minutes into this epic contest, Federer sent down his 27th ace to seal an unlikely victory.
Federer’s dalliance with records is now nearly habitual – this was his 307th Grand Slam win, pushing him past Martina Navratilova’s mark of 306. It is also the 11th semifinal for him at Wimbledon, tying the open era record held by Jimmy Connors.
It was his tenth career victory after being down two sets to nothing. He emulated Boris Becker and Aaron Krickstein, who also had ten comeback victories after losing the first two sets. Federer also became the oldest semifinalist in 42 years, behind Ken Rosewall, who reached the stage as a 39-year-old man in 1974.
"Physically, my legs were there, my back was there. Mentally this will give me a huge boost," warned Federer as he looked ahead to his match against Milos Raonic. Just as well too, his knee and back issues have kept im off court for a prolonged duration of time since his semifinal run at Melbourne this year.
Federer will need all the fresh energy he can muster to find a way past Raonic to advance into Sunday’s final. His last Grand Slam trophy came here four years ago, when he beat Andy Murray for the title. Federer could face him again, with Murray equally worn out if not worse, from his own five set adventure against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The Scot faces Tomas Berdych on Friday for a place in the final.
For all the records that fall every time Federer takes court, he would not mind trading many of them away for a record eight Wimbledon crown on Sunday. While he has been beaten in the last two finals by Djokovic, this could be his best chance yet to clinch an elusive 18th Grand Slam title.