ROGER FEDERER: The Artist Who Cannot Avoid Beauty, the Athlete Who Cannot Avoid Drama

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Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Wimbledon, England

Bill Simons

The Duke (of Kent) was nervous. The Chairman (of the All England Club) was glum. The first Lady of the ATP (Mirka Federer) was chewing her nails. Beckham looked like he had just gotten a yellow card. And 15,000 fans – hoping for a master class by their beloved Roger – were equally despondent. “What’s wrong, Mummy?” asked a ten-year-old girl from Leeds. Well, an Alpine artist named Roger was in a most un-Federer-like funk.

Then again, the man is old – almost 35. By all rights, he should have been atop an Alpine peak in a comfy chalet, feet up or playing with his twins.

But no, Lord Federer is not only the artist who cannot avoid beauty, he is the athlete who cannot avoid drama. He loves the thrill. Recently, he told The Guardian, “I need the fire, the excitement, the whole roller coaster.”

Today the magic man went deep into his bag of tricks to give us yet another gift, a match that will be right there amidst his all-time memorable matches. Let’s see, there was his breakout, “Here I Am” 2001 win over the reigning King of Wimbledon Pete Sampras; his 2008 Wimbledon losing battle in the dusk against Rafa; his five-set loss to Nadal in the 2009 Australian final, when he wept; his 2009 French Open win over Tommy Haas, when he came back from two sets down en route to his first and only Roland Garros title, and his five-set 2009 Wimbledon win over Andy Roddick.

But at the outset, his Wimbledon quarterfinal match today against No. 9 seed Marin Cilic was more about survival than glory. Roger seemed old and slow: a combatant without answers. In contrast, Cilic leaned into his shots and punished the seven-time Wimbledon champ. It all brought to mind the aging Muhammad Ali, then 38, who was pummeled by Larry Holmes. It wasn’t pretty. Neither was this.

We saw why Roger hadn’t won a Slam in four years. But it wasn’t as if Federer hadn’t warned us. He told the press, “I practiced with Marin when I arrived here at Wimbledon. He was playing great. One-two, one-two, one-two, serving, boom, forehand, serving, boom, backhand…He blew me off the court at the US Open [in 2014]. I know what I’m getting into. He’s really tough to play. He’s really improved his serve…Everything he touched went in…It was alright, here is a chance, boom. Maybe here is another chance, boom…It was just all on his racquet. It was very seldom that I was blown off the court like that…Every time I had a small chance, either he served another big serve, or on the return…[he] was unbelievably impressive.”

Today the quiet, likable Croat who won the 2014 US Open, was definitely impressive. Playing with conviction, he unleashed 137-mph serves on the line or 114 mph aces to the corner of the deuce court. Radio Wimbledon reported that Roger “can only stand there and watch these blurs pass his left ear and then his right.”

Cilic, 6’6″, leaned in to crush Roger’s second serve and controlled rally points from the baseline. An unstoppable and steely giant, he moved in with surprising ease. In the zone and unintimidated by the moment, he attacked Roger’s backhand with many a missile. Amazingly, he made Federer look ordinary, even a tad slow.

Often on his heels, at times off the court, Federer was unable to impose his game or get into any rhythm. While the frustrated legend mumbled and swished his racket at the brown turf, the crowd, which had so hoped for a Herculean triumph, was left to murmur – “Oh dear.” Clearly Roger wouldn’t be able to gain a record 307th Grand Slam win. An eighth Wimbledon crown seemed out of reach when he dropped the first two sets 6-7(4), 4-6. Cilic was on cruise control and he’d never lost a match after winning the first two sets.

But never say never. And who better reads a match than the Swiss sage? Federer changed his stance on returns. Cilic’s aces fell off. Roger started to free up and hit laser passes. Nine times Federer has come back from two sets down. And after 1:44 of play, the door opened. A flowing backhand gave him a break to go up 5-3. Soon he won the third set 6-3. Match on.

The astounding fourth set proved to be one of the best in Wimbledon history. Early on Roger saved two break points. The crowd roared – sheer glee. In the fifth game, Federer himself had two break points. “Roger this!” Cilic seemed to say, and he aced the Greatest Player of All Time four straight times. The crowd groaned – this cannot be.

In the ninth game, the match seemed to be Cilic’s. He had his first match point, but Roger prevailed. This war was just amping up. Federer was now far more aggressive, his fluidity was amazing. He served brilliantly, his slices were knives, his returns had bite, he seemed to float. Yet Cilic got a second match point – feel the tension.

No problem: Federer offered a 128 mph ace. Then, shockingly, in the tie-break, Roger shanked a couple of simple shots and failed to convert two set points. So Cilic counterattacked and gained a third match point. But then, rather passively, he netted a forehand return of serve.

Later he mourned. “Obviously, in those situations, [a] slight hesitation comes into your body. [Your] legs start to not move, so you have to…focus on the game…rather than the occasion.”

But this occasion was monumental. “This is what this maddening sport is all about,” said one proper British commentator. “These are moments of genius,” said another. No kidding. And when Cilic dumped a forehand into the net, Roger claimed the epic fourth set, 11-9 in the tie-break.

But then the match hit the pause button. In comparison with the sizzle of the fourth set, the final set was straightforward. In the eighth game, on his third break point of the set, a Cilic forehand to an open court misfired. Roger broke and, in the next game on his first match point, blasted a 115 mph ace to win one of the most memorable matches of his career, 6-7(4), 4-6, 6-3, 7-6(9), 6-3.

Roger wouldn’t say it was his best match ever. Rather he compared it with his 2009 French Open win over Tommy Haas when, like today, he saved many break points and came from two sets down.

On the game’s most celebrated court, he survived three match points and prevailed seven of eight when facing  break points. He dug himself out of a mighty ditch, pushed his war-weary body to sprint for over three hours and called on his mind to perform with a surgical precision – calm, focused, patient, confident.

Simply put, the man performed with a sublime mastery under excruciating circumstances. And he almost made it look easy. But, then again, isn’t that what geniuses do?