“I tried. I fought. I believed.”
Roger Federer summed up his quarter-final performance against Marin Cilic as crisply as he finished his match. Federer’s legs and back were with him until the end of the match. But more than physical fitness, it was his belief that saw him through. This belief has been missing since his last Wimbledon triumph in 2012.
How did he find it after losing the first two sets? How did he not lose it in his uphill climb of winning the next three sets?
With Novak Djokovic’s shock exit in the Third Round, the narrative of Wimbledon 2016 changed overnight. Federer and Murray became the new favorites. A month away from turning 35, Federer’s current campaign at the Wimbledon was peppered with questions pertaining to his fitness, mental tenacity and ability to grind out 5 set matches. Federer laid them all to rest yesterday.
Lauded as the history maker, Federer earned his 307thmatch win in Grand Slams by defeating Cilic. This was the Swiss Maestro’s 10th return from the brink – a 0-2 deficit – in his illustrious career. 24 hours have gone by since this remarkable feat. His 10th comeback has been dissected point by point, game by game. Pivotal points in the match have been replayed on television a myriad time.
After a marathon 3 hour 20 minute battle that saw him save 3 Match Points, Federer closed out the match with an ace. He raised his arms in jubilation and sported the finger wag, something that the tennis world had not witnessed for years.
Federer showed nerves of steel at critical junctures
Over the last few years, Federer has made a comeback from two sets down. The most memorable comebacks are his Third Round encounter against Julien Benneteau in Wimbledon 2012 and his Quarter Final match against the flashy Gael Monfils in the US Open 2014.
Momentum shifts on grass happen in the blink of an eye. Facing a big server like Cilic is no easy task on grass. With consistent serving and the famed 1-2 combination, Cilic had the match by the scruff of its neck after winning the first two sets 7-6, 6-4.
Staring into nothingness, Federer looked lost just before the beginning of the third set. Given his performance over the last couple of years, it looked as if he would lose in straight sets or would show a flash of brilliance by capturing the Third before finally fizzling out in the Fourth.
At 3-3, 0-40 down in the third set, Federer had other plans. He stayed calm to not only save Break Points but also went on to break Cilic in the very next game to swing the momentum on to his side. This sort of calm was conspicuously missing in Federer’s mental make-up since his resurgence in 2014. If this composure has been reinstated by Ivan Ljubicic, then he definitely shone as a super coach yesterday.
Federer wants this Wimbledon more badly than ever
Federer has been vulnerable with Novak Djokovic on the other side of the net. Although the Swiss has been the only man to beat the Serbinator last year, those victories came by in 3 Set formats and not in Grand Slams. After losing in three Grand Slam Finals – Wimbledon 2014, 2015 and the US Open 2015 – the relentless Serb seemed like an insurmountable obstacle in Federer’s quest for his 18th Slam.
With the Serb now out of his path, courtesy Sam Querrey, and Nadal nursing his left wrist, Federer recognizes that this may be his best opportunity to claim an 8th Wimbledon title.
It is probably this thought that egged him on to crawl out of the 0-2 hole he was in.
There were a few moments of Federer magic in which the 7 time Wimbledon Champion showed that he was ready to pull out all the stops to reach a record 11th Semi Final at Wimbledon.
At 4-4 in the first set, he leapt into the air to execute a backhand smash. The smash was perfectly placed and effective enough to draw an error from Cilic.
When Cilic served at 2-3, 40-0 in the third set, he hit a pass down the line that Federer lunged for redirecting the ball into the open court. With vintage Federer on display, shots like these were starting to sway the momentum away from the US Open 2014 Champion.
Federer conjured more magic in the deciding set that broke Cilic’s resolve a little more.
Serving at 2-3, 15-15 in the fifth set, Cilic pulled Federer out of the court and hit a backhand into the other corner of the open court. What initially seemed like another winner from the Croat’s racquet was not to be. Federer chased the ball down and bunted it to Cilic’s backhand corner. All Cilic could do was stay fixed near the net and watch the ball fly by for a clean winner.
Federer’s hunger for the title is more evident than ever.
Finding inspiration in past comebacks
Winning the third set merely indicated a shift in the momentum of the match. Clinching the fourth set was even more significant for Federer to not just level the match but also remain in it.
In the post match conference, Federer mentioned that he kept his belief through the rest of the match by drawing inspiration from his epic comeback against Tommy Haas in the French Open of 2009. Having lost the first two sets to the German, Federer faced break points in the Third. Federer hit a scintillating forehand pass under immense pressure and turned the match around.
Federer was in a similar situation yesterday, except that Cilic did not wilt like Haas did. The Croat did put up some resistance till late into the fourth set tie-break.
Federer seemed to have picked the right match from his past to keep the belief in him going. Rafael Nadal was the favorite for the French Open 2009 title. Nadal was knocked out by Robin Soderling in the early stages of the tournament. Federer pounced on the opportunity. He survived Tommy Haas and also went on to win his maiden French Open.
His situation in Wimbledon 2016 is similar. Novak Djokovic came into the tournament as the hot favorite. With Sam Querrey taking Djokovic out of the equation and Federer surviving Cilic, it will be interesting to see how Federer handles himself in the next two matches.
Back in 2009, he achieved his dream of winning the French Open and completing the Career Grand Slam. Can he repeat a feat of similar stature and make his dream of an 8th Wimbledon title come true?
Can Federer make the most of this Phoenix moment?
Roger Federer made timely changes to his game plan as the match against Cilic progressed. Federer changed his return stance mid way through the match. Thereafter, Cilic was able to hit only 5 aces as compared to the 18 aces that he rained on Federer in the first half of the match.
Federer also drew the 6ft 6” Croat to the net with low bouncing slices and created himself opportunities to hit passing shots subsequently. This tactic worked well against Cilic and Federer could consider using it against Milos Raonic in the semi-final.
Raonic could be a tough cookie to get past. With the help of John McEnroe, the Canadian has added more dimensions to his game on grass.
If he reaches the final, Federer might prefer to play Andy Murray over Tomas Berdych. Although the Swiss has a better head to head over Berdych, Berdych won their sole encounter at Wimbledon 6 years ago. The Czech, in his current form, can be very dangerous as he was almost Djokovic like in his annihilation of Lucas Pouille in the quarter-final.
Federer has defeated Murray at Wimbledon in both their encounters barring the London Olympics Gold Medal match in 2012.
Roger Federer may not fancy more 5 set epic battles in the remainder of his Wimbledon campaign but if he fancies an 8th Wimbledon title, he has to hold on to that belief as tightly as he can.