Much has changed for Roger Federer since he played in, and won, his first Grand Slam final at Wimbledon in 2003.
First of all, as he reminded everyone after moving into his 11th title match at the All England Club — with a shot at his eighth championship, more than any man in history — he favoured a ponytail and some scruff on his cheeks way back then. Nowadays, his hair is short, his face clean shaven. Another significant difference for Federer, whose 36th birthday is Aug. 8, making him the oldest men’s finalist at Wimbledon since 1974?
“I didn’t have kids running around, potentially waking me up at night,” he said. “Today we’ve got to, like, close down the doors. Say, ‘Daddy is sleeping.’”
He’s a father of four: twin boys, 3; twin girls, 8 soon.
On the court, there are ways in which the Federer who faces Marin Cilic on Sunday is not the same as the Federer who beat Mark Philippoussis 14 years ago. The larger racket, for example, or the increased willingness to hit over the top on his backhand. In truth, though, what’s most important is this: Federer is still as capable as ever of beating everyone who stands in his way.
“This guy doesn’t really seem (to be) getting any older or anything like that,” said Tomas Berdych, who lost to Federer in the semifinals, “or slowing down at all.”
That’s certainly the case. Federer is 30-2 and tied for the tour lead with four titles in 2017, including at the Australian Open in January.
During Wimbledon, he has not lost a set through six matches; the last man to earn the title without ceding a set was Bjorn Borg, 31 years ago. He’s only been broken four times, saving 16 of 20 break points along the way.
“Roger is playing maybe (some) of his best tennis of his career at the moment,” said Cilic, the No. 7-seeded Croatian who hit 25 aces and returned quite well during his semifinal victory over Sam Querrey. “It’s going to be a huge challenge.”
They have played each other seven times previously, with Federer winning six, including in last year’s Wimbledon quarterfinals. Cilic took the first two sets and even was one point from victory before Federer came back. The lone head-to-head win for Cilic came in one of the most significant matches of his career: 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 in the semifinals of the 2014 U.S. Open, where he went on to earn his only Grand Slam title.
“He knows he absolutely destroyed Roger,” said Jonas Bjorkman, one of Cilic’s two coaches.
That knowledge is key for this match, according to Bjorkman. So, too, is the past experience of participating in, and winning, a major final.
“He knows what it takes,” Bjorkman said. “He knows how it feels to be out there, and he knows what it is to be under the pressure like that.”
The 6-foot-6 (1.98-meter) Cilic, who is 28, has improved since then, too. His serve is better, as are his volleys and his inclination to move to the net. Those can help on Sunday. Would also be useful if he is able to read Federer’s serves as well as he did Querrey’s. Still, it’s the mental side of things that matter for Cilic, according to the only Croatian man to win Wimbledon, Goran Ivanisevic.
“He needs to just believe,” said Ivanisevic, the 2001 champion at the All England Club and Cilic’s coach in New York three years ago. “It has nothing to do with tennis. In the end, it’s all in your head.”
Past history favours Federer by a wide margin. His 11 Wimbledon finals are a record for a man at any Grand Slam tournament (no one else has played more than seven at the All England Club.) His 29 Grand Slam finals are seven more than Rafael Nadal, who ranks No. 2. His 18 Grand Slam titles are three more than Nadal, No. 2 in that category, too.
And only Pete Sampras and William Renshaw (who played in the 1880s, back when a previous year’s champion only needed to win one match to retain the title) also can boast of seven men’s trophies at Wimbledon.
Now Federer wants to collect another after missing out on chances with losses to Novak Djokovic in the 2014 and 2015 finals.
“It’s a big deal. I love this tournament. All my dreams came true here as a player,” Federer said. “To have another chance to go for No. 8 now, be kind of so close now at this stage, is a great feeling.”