He was a point from defeat three times. But the miraculous maestro of tennis — Roger Federer — conducted a moving comeback and advanced to his 11th semifinal at Wimbledon, lifting crowds to their feet in a roar heard around the world.
“I knew I was under so much pressure in the third and then in the fourth, but, yeah, it was great,” Federer told the BBC immediately following his victory, 6-7(4), 4-6, 6-3, 7-6(9), 6-3 over Marin Cilic. “I fought well and played super great at the end, so I’m very very pleased.”
His advance to the semifinals ties the record set by Jimmy Connors: 11. Federer now holds the most match wins of all time in singles at a major, too, earning his 307th today and surpassing Martina Navratilova. Finally, Federer became the oldest man in a Wimbledon semifinal since 39-year-old Ken Rosewall in 1974. Federer turns 35 in August.
Memories of Cilic’s straight-set demolition of Federer in the semifinals of the U. S. Open in 2014 rose to the surface as fast as the first two sets zipped by.
“It wasn’t going well for me,” Federer said. “I wasn’t seeing his serves anymore. The next thing you know you’re down two sets on grass.”
John McEnroe and Chris Fowler, calling the match for ESPN, agreed that Federer’s age was a problem. He wasn’t moving left and right so well. He was a step behind. “His movement,” McEnroe said, “it doesn’t seem to be as effortless.”
But Federer showed them and everyone who sat on the edges of their seats for the entire 3 hours and 17 minutes.
His climb ignited in the third when he tossed aside a failing baseline game and risked more frequent runs to the net in an attempt to upset Cilic’s rhythm. The strategy was fraught with pitfalls because Cilic’s shots were so heavy and placed so deeply in the court that Federer was pinned down and stuck in a defensive position that is not his style.
“He was Goran-esque on serves,” Federer said, referring to Cilic’s coach and former player and Wimbledon champion, Goran Ivanesovic. “Somehow I hoped for his level to drop a little and get a little lucky. That’s exactly what happened.”
Federer had three break point chances in sets one and two, but didn’t convert any. Then at 3-3 in the third, Federer was on the brink of disaster. He was as low as he could get, down 0-40. Four points later he stood tall and went to the sideline. Cilic double faulted to hand Federer the break in the next game and served out the set.
The fourth was yet another scramble to a tiebreak, which Federer called, “crazy.”
Match points ensued left and right for both men. Federer had the set on his racquet, came in on a short ball, then missed a sitting forehand as a huge sigh filled the stadium. Back to the baseline they went, changing sides once again at 9-points all. Finally, Federer tipped the balance when he jabbed a forehand low cross court after another of Cilic’s fiery down-the-line backhands appeared to have ended Federer’s hopes. Cilic had to lurch toward the shot. Out of balance, he sent hit the ball out. “Federer never trailed again,” Steve Tignor wrote for Tennis.com.
Federer had come back from two sets down twice before today’s memorable match: round one against Alejandro Falla in 2010 and round three against Julien Benneteau in 2012. Federer went on to win his 7th and last Grand Slam that year.
“[I would] try to be more aggressive on the chances when I had them in the fourth,” Cilic said, when asked if he had regrets about his performance. “Maybe there was a slight hesitation in some of them, obviously the situation I was in made it big, so I was not getting the best out of me.”
Any one who witnessed this match would have to disagree with Mr. Cilic. There was no hesitation from either man throughout the match. Balls flew through the air in a blur, fans held their breath, and coaches plus family members quietly anticipated each point.
Federer served 27 aces to Cilic’s 23. Winning percentages on first and second serves were tight from both. Federer: 79% and 59%. Cilic: 82% and 54%. They tied with net points won … 67%.
“Federer might still make it look so easy with his technique and movement, but that overshadows his intensity and will to win,” Tim Henman, 4-time Wimbledon semifinalist, wrote on the BBC’s blog. “It was his will to win that got him over the line.”
Federer was asked what goal he’d like to reach, after his third-round win over American Stevie Johnson. “I hope I can win Wimbledon one more time. That would be nice.”
He will face Milos Raonic in one semifinal Friday, who Federer beat at the same stage in 2014. The Canadian defeated Sam Querrey, 6-4, 7-5, 5-7, 6-4.
Murray through in five
As if Federer’s quarterfinal wasn’t enough drama for the day, Andy Murray threw in his own two-set-down comeback against Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, winning 7-6(10), 6-1, 3-6, 4-6, 6-1.
“Tsonga’s a pretty good player,” Murray said, when asked by the BBC why he’d lost the two sets. “He came with some great shots, started to return better. He mixed it up well. Congrats to him for fighting to get back in the match. Thankfully I got the break at the beginning of the fifth, and then a second one that takes away the pressure.”
Murray will play Tomas Berdych on Friday. The 10th seed defeated Lucas Rouille, 7-6(4), 6-3, 6-2.