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This was Roger Federer's best ever Wimbledon... Now it is undisputed he is the best to ever grace the game

July 16, 2017 8:27 PM
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He kissed the trophy like an old flame which, in many ways, it is. Eight times he has won it.

Eight times he has stood on Centre Court, drinking in a moment like this. He turned to his courtside entourage, then the rest of the arena, arms aloft, his genius now undisputed.

Roger Federer is officially the greatest player Wimbledon has seen. His 19 open era titles are already a record for the men's game; this victory moved him finally past Pete Sampras, once the king of SW19. No more. This is Federer's turf now, and not for the first time, he reduced a final opponent to tears.

At least Andy Murray waited until after the event in 2012, though, breaking down in the ceremony that followed defeat. Marin Cilic cried mid-match, three games into the second set, weeping for his misfortune as the game moved inexorably out of reach.

Polite society blamed an injury, but the damage seemed as much mental as physical. Federer can do that to a man. Beneath that polite exterior is one of the most ruthless athletes ever to break sweat in the heat of contest.

Except Federer rarely breaks sweat in the heat of contest. Slightly unnerving, that. The band around his forehead is an accessory, like the sponsor's watch he made sure he put on before the presentation ceremony.

Federer is nothing if not coldly professional, even under the greatest pressure. All spontaneity is poured into the brilliance of his tennis; the perfect readings of space and time, that long, gorgeous, forehand, the masterful improvisations to meet the unexpected.

If anything, he is getting better. It took 11 hours and 37 minutes for Federer to win his latest Wimbledon title, the most efficient performance across his eight wins, and he did so for the first time without dropping a set.

The last champion to do that here was Bjorn Borg in 1976. Yet Borg had just turned 20 back then, with a fitness level that bordered on freakish.

Federer is 36 next month, making him the oldest winner in Wimbledon's Open era. He is also the father of two sets of twins. At a time when most men of his age and with his commitments would be limiting their exercise to gym sessions and a bit of weekend golf, Federer is taking on some of the fittest men in sport, and crushing them.

As he did Cilic on Sunday. Crushed him so ruthlessly it was almost painful to watch. The crowd went from cheering on their favourite Federer, to willing him to cut Cilic some slack.

'Come on Roger, give him a break,' one spectator implored as the third set marched towards the inevitable. Yet Federer never gave Cilic a break. He barely gave him a point off his serve — just nine in the first hour and 10 minutes.

Service was supposed to be Cilic's great weapon, but Federer disarmed him almost from the start. He won the toss but elected to receive, looking to exploit Cilic's nerves. Federer had to wait a while — and Cilic even had a break point in the fourth game — but when he did crack it was in such a way that the match was lost from that point.

Federer broke him in the fifth game of the first set, despite Cilic gamely saving two break points. Federer holding his next two service games to love, it left Cilic serving again to keep the set alive.

At 30-30, a Cilic return clipped the top of the net. Federer adjusted and improvised magnificently, playing a lovely shot close to the baseline that Cilic couldn't pick up. He saved set point. Federer got advantage. Cilic double faulted to concede: and from there it got away from him quite quickly.

In the second set, Federer won his serve to love again, broke Cilic swiftly — he had now won three of Cilic's last four service games — and held serve to lead 3-0. It was all too much for the Croat. At the break he summoned medical assistance, but seemed more in need of a psychologist.

He sat in his chair, emotionally overwrought, and began to cry. Some thought it was a reaction to a fall he had taken at the net, trying and failing to win a volley war, but he hadn't seemed to be moving with difficulty before. He didn't look like Andy Murray against Sam Querrey, put it like that.

In the commentary box, former greats speculated. Few were buying physical discomfort, ahead of emotional distress. Eventually the medics left, having administered little bar soothing words. Time was called.

Federer walked wordlessly to his spot. Cilic covered his head in a towel and remained seated. At one stage he looked like being the first Wimbledon finalist to quit on his stool since Herbert Roper Barrett in 1911.

At which point, the Wimbledon crowd came to his rescue. Fervently in Federer's corner until that point, they sensed the plight of a genuine underdog and rallied to his cause. Cilic got his biggest cheer of the afternoon, just for getting up.

Bigger when he held serve with a fabulous volley at the net, to win his first game in six. But the set was a bust. Federer won 6-1, at which point Cilic clearly decided there was no further point shielding his misery from the world.

He removed his left shoe, then his sock, to reveal existing strapping. Cilic, it transpired, had a blister. It sounds so trivial, such a minor inconvenience. In Cilic's mind, it was a monster. He couldn't shut it out, he admitted later. He couldn't forget the pain, or the interference with his movement.

Treated for 48 hours prior to this, he feared he wouldn't be able to give his best, and those fears had materialised. He was tanking in his first Wimbledon final, and there was nothing he could do.

He wasn't crying because the blister hurt; he was crying because the blister's pain had taken over his mind. The blister wept, and so did he.

So Cilic did what he could to survive. He played serve and volley and waited in quiet desperation for the end. It came soon enough, Federer breaking him in the seventh game of the third set, after Cilic smashed consecutive baseline forehands long. At least he made Federer serve for the match — throwing down two aces, including the winner, at 114mph.

Would Cilic have won, blister free? No-one could guarantee that. Federer has managed his season across two Grand Slams, and has won them both. He has won more tournaments this season than any player on the circuit and has already qualified for the ATP World Tour finals later this year.

Having left Wimbledon a year ago with his future uncertain, he has returned a new man, having taken six months off and avoided the French Open. And if he could beat Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final, it is very possible he could have beaten a fully fit Cilic here.

After all, there was little wrong with his previous six Wimbledon opponents, and he dispatched them all in straight sets, too.

It was his best ever. He is the best ever. There can be no doubting that, now.


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