Somehow, Federer keeps pushing the boundaries of greatness

LONDON — He keeps rocketing farther into the tennis firmament. Keeps pushing the boundaries past what was previously thought possible in his sport.

Roger Federer‘s record-setting 19th major victory unfolded under threatening skies here Sunday, but with no hint of trouble on court. He lost just eight games against an opponent in Marin Cilic who was hobbled by an injured foot. It took 101 minutes. From the Swiss, the most memorable emotion came minutes after he won the last point with an ace: He sat in his on-court chair, looked into the stands at his support team, his wife and children, and cried.

Then he composed himself coolly. In front of an adoring crowd he did what he has now done more than any other man in Wimbledon history. He held high the tournament’s gilded winner’s cup for the eighth time.

“To mark history here at Wimbledon really means a lot to me; it’s that simple,” Federer said soon after walking from the court. “[But] funny enough, I didn’t think that much of it throughout today, throughout the trophy ceremony. I was just happy that I was able to win Wimbledon again, because it’s been a long road. It’s been tough at times … but that’s how it’s supposed to be.”

Tough, indeed. Who could have imagined such a renaissance at age 35? Going into this season, Federer had not won a major title since a protracted battle with Andy Murray at Wimbledon five years back. He’d been close, suffering through three painful losses in the finals of major tournaments, two at the All England Club. In the fog of this fresh victory, it is easy to forget last year, when he suffered through the indignity of a tripping-tumble to the Centre Court turf as he succumbed in a semifinal defeat. He announced soon afterward that he was leaving the tour for six months, a move needed to heal his wounds and come back with a new perspective. But he was thought by many to be finished.

How quickly it all changes. The 131st Wimbledon is in the books and his name is etched again on the wall of champions. Same as at this year’s Australian Open, with its epic final against Rafael Nadal. Same as at the big tour stops in Palm Springs and Miami. Same as last month at Halle, Germany, where, just as during this fortnight, he did not drop a single set.

“I knew I could go great again maybe one day, but not at this level” he said. “You would have laughed if I told you I was going to win two Slams this year. People wouldn’t believe me if I [had] said that.” Then, he admitted that he, too, had plenty of doubts. “I also didn’t believe that I was going to win two this year.”

Now he knows. Now, once again, we all know.

During the warm-up, even before the first meaningful ball was struck here Sunday, Federer seemed even more lively and energized than usual. He always looks balletic, movement being the key to his game. But as he rallied easily with Cilic during the five-minute stanza before the first point, he seemed to be floating. The legs were fresh, springy, and light. The plan he’d hatched three months ago had worked.

In March, Federer famously took yet another leave from the tour. There were plenty of naysayers who said he’d hurt his chances at the All England Club, that he’d lost his edge by stepping away from the grind. He listened to none of them. Instead, he played a few lighthearted exhibitions, hung for a bit with his new friend, Bill Gates, and practiced at his Dubai home with one goal in mind: Wimbledon. “I’m in that mindset,” he told me during an extended interview at the time. Already he was practicing with Wimbledon balls.

As Federer relaxed, his primary rivals here were tearing up their legs, churning through the soul-sapping slog that is the clay-court season. The 28-year-old Cilic, for instance, played 16 matches during the red clay swing. He is seven years younger than Federer, but each of those matches counts as a body blow. They add up. They wreak havoc on the legs, the back, the arms, the feet.

At Wimbledon, even as Cilic played one of the best tournaments of his life, there would be even more blows. A five-setter in the quarterfinals. A stressful four sets in the semis. It can be no surprise that Cilic entered the final in awful physical condition. “My mind was all the time blocked with the pain,” he would say, describing the blistered, bloodied foot that limited his movement, causing him to be so distraught that he ended up weeping on court as the match neared its midpoint.

Still, at the start of this match, the tall Croatian was going for broke on nearly every shot. It worked for a while, until Federer displayed the subtle side of his greatness. Instead of matching Cilic’s metronomic power, Federer, for a moment, muted his game, turning to soft, spinning returns, to floaters and sharp angles. All of it worked to throw off his opponent. After five games, Federer nudged ahead. From there his arm loosened. He began poleaxing groundstrokes. The end came quickly.

Who knows what this final would have gone if Cilic had not been injured. But this much we can be sure of: Roger Federer looked nothing like the man who hobbled from these grounds at the Wimbledon fortnight of 2016. He played brilliantly throughout, becoming the first man to win at the All England Club without dropping a set since Bjorn Borg 41 years ago.

Where will Federer end up? How far can he go? How many more big titles?

“I don’t know how much longer it’s going to last,” he said after the match, his voice dropping just a sliver as he pondered the future. “I have no idea.” But he vowed to press on. The US Open awaits later this summer. A real chance for Grand Slam No. 20. On into the tennis firmament Roger Federer goes.

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