As players at Wimbledon make their way from the locker rooms onto the lawn of Centre Court at the All-England Club, they head down a flight of stairs and pass a familiar plaque. The plaque is adorned with the names of every player that has earned the right to call themselves Wimbledon champion. The plaque is recognized by all, but familiar to no one more than Roger Federer.
On Sunday afternoon on that same lawn, after that same walk down those same steps, and past that same plaque, Federer will have a chance to set his name apart from all others and break his three-way tie with William Renshaw and Pete Sampras at seven men’s Wimbledon titles. However, Marin Cilic will also see that same plaque tomorrow afternoon, and the Croatian will be just as motivated to etch his name on it for the first time as his elder counterpart will be to do so for the eighth.
Past the plaque is the tunnel that leads out on court. As the lower seed, Cilic will be walking in front and introduced first. Then Federer will follow. And this is where the fun begins.
From this tournament:
It’s no coincidence that these two men are meeting in the final. They have looked to be the strongest players throughout almost the entire fortnight. Federer came in as most analysts’ overall favorite for the title with many also backing Cilic as a dark horse contender.
Cilic breezed through the first four rounds of the tournament. He defeated Germans Philipp Kohlschreiber and Florian Meyer in straight sets, cruised past American Steve Johnson in similar fashion, and then demolished Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut while conceding only six games. If not for how dominant he was and the somewhat hushed, but still audible expectations coming into the tournament, he would have been flying completely under the radar.
Then Gilles Muller took out Rafael Nadal and suddenly Cilic was the favorite to make it out of his quarter of the draw. Many expected that after his epic 15 – 13 fifth set against the King of Clay, Muller would not have anything in the tank to challenge the bigger, stronger, faster Cilic. But many were wrong. Muller gave Cilic his first real test of the tournament in taking the Croatian to five sets; however, the Croatian pulled away easily in the final frame to book his spot in the semifinals. Coming into the fortnight, this would have been seen as a great performance for him. Anything more would have been icing on the cake.
But then Sam “Kingslayer” Querrey took out Andy Murray and once again, Cilic was suddenly the favorite – this time to make it out of his half of the draw. Cilic, for the most part, looked imperious in his performance against the American. But the Kingslayer did his part to keep the match close on the scoreline. Querrey’s strong serve and timely, albeit not-so-frequent, shot-making earned him the first set in a tiebreak, but overall the Croatian dictated proceedings throughout the match with his superior movement and groundstrokes. While the score in every set was close, Cilic had a large advantage in total points won: 150 – 121. By comparison, Roger Federer won in straight sets over Tomas Berdych but had a smaller total points advantage both by number and percentage at 126 – 107.
While many began to already prepare for the Swiss Maestro to be crowned after Wednesday’s quarterfinal results left him as the only member of the Big Four still standing, Federer knows that there is still a strong test ahead.
The seven-time champion began his 19th campaign at the All-England Club at a somewhat similar pace to how he began the Australian Open earlier this year. Alexander Dolgopolov retired early in the second set to abbreviate Federer’s initial appearance in the tournament and then the Swiss earned a solid, but far from dominant, victory over Serbia’s Dusan Lajovic. But Federer upped his level with a straight sets defeat of Mischa Zverev in the third round. He then put on vintage performances in defeating Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic in straight sets to advance to the semifinals.
Like Cilic, Federer’s semifinal opponent may not have been who was expected to come through. Czech Tomas Berdych advanced Wednesday after three-time Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic was forced to retire with an arm injury. Federer’s semifinal victory against Berdych somewhat resembled the third set against Raonic in the quarterfinals. He seemed to be the better player throughout the match, but only just. The Swiss got off to a fast start and then uncharacteristically allowed the Czech back into the first set. After nearly two hours of tense, exciting, heavy-hitting tennis, Federer had earned a two-set lead courtesy of two 7 – 4 tiebreakers. The third set was relatively routine as Berdych’s fighting spirit did finally seem to waiver and Federer was able to grab a single break of serve to move on to the final without having dropped a set in the tournament.
If you ask most tennis fans what the head-to-head record between Federer and Cilic is, they would probably guess wrong. Despite how difficult of an opponent the Croatian has been for the Swiss in recent years, Federer leads their overall meetings 6 – 1. That being said, four of those seven meetings came in 2012 or earlier when Cilic would have been only 23-years-old and hardly the player that he is now.
In the three matches since 2014, Federer leads 2 – 1; however, Cilic actually leads in sets won 5 – 4 and in games won 60 – 59. The players contested a truly exciting match at the Canada Open in 2014 which consisted of two tiebreakers and Federer eventually triumphing 6 – 4 in the third. Only a month later it was Cilic’s turn to get revenge as he turned in a dominant straight-sets victory in the semifinals of the U.S. Open.
Then there was last year, the match that probably was in the back of many of the aforementioned analysts’ minds when they anointed Cilic as a contender for this title. The Croatian was, once again, looking dominant over Federer, earning a two sets to love lead in their quarterfinal. However, the Swiss showed the heart of a champion in winning the third set and then wrestling the fourth into a tense tiebreak which he won 11 – 9. In the fifth, Federer was able to earn the decisive break of serve in the eighth game and then served out the match.
So as you can see, despite the actual 6 – 1 head-to-head record, in recent years, Cilic has consistently given Federer a lot of problems that will surely have the Swiss worrying about more than the historical significance of Sunday’s match.
Keys to the match:
Federer will need to take full advantage of the variety of his game and his agility. It will be important for the 18-time Grand Slam champion to use the low bounce that grass courts lend in order to utilize his excellent slice backhand and net game. When he got off to his fast start against Berdych, Federer was using the slice very effectively, but he seemed to go away from that tactic later in the match and while his attempts at being aggressive were admirable, hitting over the backhand left a lot more hanging balls for the Czech to take swings at. The Croatian will capitalize on hanging balls similarly and probably with even more success. In addition to the slice, Federer should consider using more dropshots than usual as Cilic, while an adequate net player, is less dangerous in the forecourt than from the baseline.
Another key to Federer’s game will be getting Cilic on the move, but this is where it gets tricky. On paper, Federer’s semifinal and final opponents are similar. Strong, tall men who can hit the ball off both sides but also move pretty well and can even play a volley or two. But tennis is about a lot more than what’s on paper. Like on Friday, Federer will need to get his opponent on the move rather than letting Cilic pummel the ball from the middle of the court, but rather than trying to stretch his opponent to the forehand side as he did against Berdych, the Swiss will want to bring Cilic the opposite way. The former U.S. Open champion has an excellent backhand, one of the best in the business, but he struggles to get any power on it when he is stretched to that side. But on the other side, his running forehand is fearsome. He can cover a deceptive amount of ground due to his long limbs and he has an ability to rip forehands on the stretch in a similar manner to Novak Djokovic. Federer will need to be careful about when and if he attacks Cilic’s forehand.
Here’s an example of that type of forehand. It isn’t actually the shot that went down in the stat sheet as a winner, but it set it up after handling a pretty good forehand from Federer on the rise and absolutely blowing up what looked like a neutral rally:
The Swiss will also absolutely need to improve his break point conversion rate. Federer converted only two of nine break opportunities in the semifinal, and while part of that is due to Berdych serving well, Cilic is an even better server.
Finally, it will be important for Federer not to let the occasion get the best of him. For a man who stands to break records and make history almost every single time he steps onto the court now, that may seem like a silly point to make, but during Friday’s semifinal against Berdych, Federer was clearly frustrated. Whether it was the Czech’s serving, his own play, or the gravity of the occasion that was getting to him, I don’t know, but I would guess it was perhaps all three. He was muttering to himself constantly, slapping and kicking balls around the court, and even let out a loud groan when he mishandled a ball while bouncing it before serving. It was as audibly and visibly frustrated as I’ve seen him on a tennis court since the 2013 Australian Open semifinals against Andy Murray.
For Cilic, the keys of the match are somewhat simple: Overpower Federer. The Croatian is of the brand of player that can simply take the racquet out of their opponents’ hands. Federer has seen it first-hand of course at the U.S. Open in 2014. It cannot be overstated how utterly dominant Cilic was in that contest. It was the sort of match in which even while acknowledging Federer’s undeniable greatness, it felt like it was over after a set and a break. The Swiss simply had no answers on that day.
That being said, Federer will be on fresher legs Sunday. One thing that some might not remember about that 2014 meeting is that the 18-time major champion had emerged from an epic quarterfinal battle against Gael Monfils in which he had to come back from two sets down. He was less than 48 hours removed from that match when he went on court to face Cilic.
For Cilic to duplicate his 2014 performance, he will need to first of all handle the slice of Federer. It will be important for him to do more than simply spin rally balls back into court. Cilic must attack the slice, perhaps by running around his backhand as much as possible. He handles the low ball pretty well on his forehand side and his aforementioned ability to strike the forehand on the run as well makes running around the backhand and leaving the forehand side somewhat open less dangerous.
Another key for the Croatian will be attacking Federer’s forehand. Thanks to Rafael Nadal, the common consensus about attacking Federer for years has been to go after his single-handed backhand; however, as Nadal himself has experienced more than anyone this year, that is no longer as reliable of a tactic. Even more so, attacking Federer’s forehand has always been a possibility even in earlier years. While it is an incredible weapon offensively and is also capable of coming up with some miraculous passes, the Swiss does sometimes struggle when stretched very wide on that side. With his strong crosscourt forehand and good ability to redirect the backhand up the line, Cilic is capable of exploiting that.
Perhaps more than any Xs and Os and strategy though, the key to Sunday’s final for Marin Cilic will be getting off to a good start. He will need to be ready for the fact that the crowd will be almost entirely against him. It will not quite be a duplicate of the 2015 U.S. Open final during which Federer enjoyed an almost unfair level of support over Novak Djokovic, but it will be partisan to the point that the Croatian might wonder if he is actually playing Andy Murray. Federer has always been one of the greatest front-runners in tennis history. If you go down a set and a break to him, the match can be over seemingly in a flash.
The conventional wisdom points to Federer as the favorite in this match. The betting odds will do the same, as will most analysts. He is a seven-time champion, arguably the greatest grass court player of all-time, and he has not dropped a set in the tournament. But recent history points to throwing the conventional wisdom out the window. It is a fact that Cilic has given Federer real trouble in recent years and that his combination of speed, power, and size is capable of beating anyone on any given day.
I believe that this match will come down to a few swing points in each set. A few of those 15-30 or 0-30 points in which either the returner is able to really put the pressure on, or the server is able to gain a foothold and take a breath. I believe that in those pressure moments, Federer will be the stronger player. If he gets off to a good start, he should be able to hang on to his lead by playing those big points just a little bit better. I believe that it will be the Swiss Maestro who will win in straight sets, and as he walks back towards those stairs on the way to see his wife and four children, he will see his name unveiled for an eighth time on that all-too-familiar plaque.