Opera has La Scala. Classical music alights at Carnegie Hall. Golf boasts Augusta.
As great as any of these, tennis has The All-England Lawn Tennis Club. And there is nothing in our game quite like the glorious day of the Wimbledon men’s final, when the usually serene grounds crackle with anticipation – a grand celebration of an international game. Here, sikhs in crimson turbans, Scots in kilts, and Yorkshire ladies in broad bonnets mingle on St. Mary’s Walk, while the Members’ Enclosure is loud with chatter.
Among the well-heeled throng are honored guests in the Royal Box – fine actors and good dukes and duchesses. All the while, frenzied sports writers scrub the record books for a last revealing stat.
Everyone knows: we are at the mountaintop. The world’s greatest tournament will be showcasing the most beloved player to ever pick up a tennis racket. Yes, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan and Pele were beloved. But the adulation for this man is approaching (dare we say) religious overtones. “The guy is just breaking record after record,” said a past king of Centre Court, Boris Becker. “He just has this aura around him.” Jim Courier, with a certain sense of wonder, noted. “Roger makes the impossible seem routine.”
The BBC told us, “Everyone’s heart will be broken if Roger loses.”
A mid-level British celebrity on Wimbledon TV said, “It feels like a foregone conclusion. Yes, there will be another lad on the other side of that net – what’s his name ‘Marion’ Cilic? I’ll have to google it.”
But hold on folks. Cilic beat Federer en route to the 2014 US Open title, and last year had him on the ropes in the quarterfinals when he won the first two sets and had three match points.
But Roger adores the big moment, the big stage and big records. And “eight” is his thing.
He was born on the the eighth day of the eighth month in 1981. He’s well aware that in parts of Asia, eight is a lucky number. When he formed his representation group, he called it Team 8. And today before the final, guess where he practiced. You got it – Court 8.
Years ago, Roger’s breakthrough match came when he dethroned yet another King of Wimbledon, Pete Sampras. Today his task was to break the American’s record and collect another Wimbledon title – his eighth.
Roger Federer can be an unsparing critic. At fifteen, he insisted you should be able to play a perfect match. Today he didn’t play a flawless match – and he hasn’t had a perfect season. Goodness, earlier this year he lost to the oddly-named Evgeny Donskoy and the 39-year old Tommy Haas. But aside from that, he collected three of the four biggest titles of the year – Australia, Indian Wells and Miami.
Wimbledon this year, said Becker, “was supposed to be about the Big Four, but in the end it was the legend who remained standing.” And, as Radio Wimbledon told us, “Federer will surely capitalize on all the butterflies that have to be flying around in [Marin] Cilic’s belly.” But no, it was the Croatian tower of power who at first was poised, as he crushed huge forehands and served big. Mr. Perfect was on his heels and – oh dear – suffered a string of errant shots. Early on, he twice double-faulted. The British throng were stunned. “Please Mr. Federer,” they seemed to plea, “if you don’t object, just be Roger.”
Then came a shock moment of danger. In the fourth game, Federer netted a backhand to give Cilic a critical break point. But at his moment of truth, the Croat netted a makeable backhand.
The miscue changed everything. The crowd and the previously anxious Federer breathed a calming and audible sigh of relief.
Little did we know that for the rest of the final, the Alpine fellow would be smoothly skiing downhill. For little did Roger or the world know that Cilic had suffered a serious blister on his left foot late in his semi against Querrey.
To everyone’s shock, just after Roger collected the first set 6-3, Cilic dropped his head into his towel in pain and sorrow. He wept knowing that in the biggest moment of his 12-year career he would be hobbled – a non-competitive shell of his usually fierce self.
But beware – lesser players often falter against injured foes – not Roger. His focus is legendary. Wayne Ferreira said, “Roger will feel sorry for Cilic tomorrow, but not today.” Over the next two drama-free sets Federer slammed the door shut – no mercy. Today’s performance by Wimbledon’s artist-in-residence was less about dreamy movement and poetic shots and more about no-nonsense game management.
Yes, we saw extraordinary drop shots with the delicacy of a December snowflake and backhand blasts that bent your mind. But that didn’t stop Centre Court from exploding with boisterous delight when Federer unleashed yet another ace to gain his first Wimbledon in five years. Statisticians noted that Roger was the first person in 41 years to win Wimbledon without dropping a set and the oldest Wimbledon men’s winner in the Open era.
Of course, what is really old about this great man is that he gives us unending magical moments.
Now Indian ladies in saris were giddy with joy. Under a royal balcony thousands came to see Roger lift the gold trophy. “This is like a papal blessing,” said the Ohio executive next to me.
Key observers soon offered mighty praise. Roger’s longtime coach Severin Luthi gushed, “It cannot get any better than this.” Federer’s agent, Tony Godsick – while guiding Roger’s inner circle to a private celebration just above the Players Lawn – told Inside Tennis, “This is where Roger has done it all. Now he’s surpassed the greats – William Renshaw and Sampras.”
Cilic – so graceful in defeat – noted that “his ability and his desire to improve is the best in the game.”
John McEnroe added, “I have seen a lot of things in my 40 years here, but I’ve never seen anything like this guy.”
After his triumph, the man of the hour – a beaming glow of victory about him – spoke to Inside Tennis about his near perfect season and his impeccable Wimbledon. “Honestly, I’m incredibly surprised it’s this good…You would have laughed too, if I told you I was going to win two Slams this year…It’s incredible.”
Earlier, Roger confided, “I always believed I could maybe come back and do it again, and if you believe, you can go far in life. And I did that and I’m happy. I kept on believing and dreaming and here I am in with the eighth and it is fantastic.” And so have been the unending gifts of a truly sublime tennis player and an inspired man named Roger.