London: Britain has seen the best of Roger Federer. His 19 grand slam titles are a global spread, but the All England Club is the Old Vic in his head. This corner of England has helped him to unassailable greatness and he has returned the favour with so much beautiful tennis. “Wimbledon was always my favourite tournament, will always be my favourite tournament. My heroes walked the grounds and walked the courts here,” Federer said after winning a record eighth men’s singles title. “Because of them, I think I became a better player, too.”
Five times in Australia, once in France and five times in New York, Federer has held up a trophy, made a gracious speech and declared his love for a tournament. But Wimbledon was his first and his most recent. It is the venue that appeals most to his sense of place and grandeur. The grass, the tradition and, yes, the crowd frame his career in a way that fits his talent.
He said: “It’s been tough at times, but that’s how it’s supposed to be. So to be Wimbledon champion for an entire year now is something I can’t wait, you know, to savour and just enjoy. It was super special.”
If Wimbledon has done this for him, what Federer has done for Wimbledon may have slipped by in an anti-climactic victory over Marin Cilic, who was blistered and a long way short of blistering in a 6-3, 6-1, 6-4 defeat. Numbers are the easy measure of status. Beyond those sums is the question of how the audience is left feeling, years from now — the higher judgement of genius.
Federer made a stinker of a final feel like a gift to his favourite crowd. A non-event and a moment in tennis history: all in a day’s work. After his eighth win here, at the age of 35, Federer guided his two sets of twins through the protocols, shared a bit of time with royals and strode on to a balcony to receive his public.
Some find all this a bit regal — a little presidential — to which you might respond: no tennis player in history has had more to be regal about. And he is part of British sporting history: a kind of permanent exhibition here in London, which none of us wants to see closed. No elite career has been built so solidly on the relentless application of abnormal talent — over 19 years, from the day he won the 1998 boys’ singles title in this parish, looking quite a lot like he does now.
Same gleam, same smile, same sense of the physical gift he was blessed with. That knowledge has evidently sustained him through those years when his decline became at least conceivable, if not yet fact. His last Wimbledon win had been in 2012 — five years ago, before Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic invaded Centre Court.
Federer has never stopped being a candidate for the highest honours. It was reasonable to think, though, that time was easing him out of the frame, until his Australian Open win in January vindicated a decision to take six months off in the second half of 2016. This championship fell his way, with Murray hobbling out, Djokovic retiring hurt and Rafael Nadal departing early.
His last three victims were Milos Raonic, Tomas Berdych and Cilic — all dispatched in straight sets, along with each of his earlier opponents. Cilic, too, claimed medical mitigation, blaming a blister for his implosion in the second set, which he lost 6-1. With the other big names gone, and Cilic crushed, Federer cruised past Pete Sampras and William Renshaw, who each won seven titles at the All England Club.
Not with cautious, old-man tennis either. This is the thing. Never, in those eight Wimbledon wins over 14 years (2003-2017) has he been less than entertaining in his ability to win creatively, with strong strategic play raised to a higher plane by touch, feel, instinct. Those moments are hard to count.
They are not metal. You can’t put them in a cabinet. But they are the basis of Federer’s appeal, and the reason Centre Court roared him on until an arguably British impulse took hold: sympathy for the underdog, the victim (though some would say the surge of support for Cilic was to stretch out the game in the interests of value for money).
Federer claims he was never a special project as a child — just “a normal guy growing up in Basel”. Nice try. In talent and temperament, he was always heading for the global platform. For him, that means Wimbledon, Centre Court, where, next year he might give the Russia 2018 World Cup final a run for its money (the two are scheduled to clash).
“I’ve always been a big-stage player. I always felt like I played my best on the biggest courts,” Federer told us. “I struggled on Court 18, to be honest, for whatever reason it was. I just didn’t feel I hit the ball as good there as on Centre Court. I felt like I dreamed pretty big as a kid. I believed that maybe things were possible that maybe others thought were never going to be achievable.”
Wimbledon has watched that dream unfold, in stages, for 19 years.
Time enough to count our blessings.