When American hero Sam Querrey took down Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon last week, the implications for Roger Federer were quite clear: This could be the 34-year-old’s last, best chance to add an 18th Grand Slam title to his legendary résumé. After all, grass is Federer’s strongest surface, and the only two players ever to defeat him in a Wimbledon final — Djokovic and the injured Rafael Nadal — were now both out of the mix. The only problem: Federer was headed for a quarterfinal showdown with world no. 13 Marin Cilic, who beat him in straight sets at the 2014 U.S. Open the last time the two played. Despite Djokovic’s early exit (Djexit?), advancing to the final would be no easy task.
Federer and Cilic squared off today, and the first two sets were eerily reminiscent of their meeting in Flushing Meadows. Cilic won both of them, 7–6 (7–4) and 6–4, sending Federer to the brink of elimination. Federer even dubbed Cilic’s play “U.S. Open–esque,” and admitted to being dominated in every phase of the game: “On the return, he was reading my serve. On the serve, I couldn’t read his serve.” The storybook narrative many tennis aficionados had been fantasizing about since Djokovic’s loss seemed to be just that: a fantasy.
The third set began on a similar note, and with Federer serving at 3–3, 0–40, Cilic looked to be on the verge of a match-clinching break. If all hope for a comeback wasn’t lost, it was at least hidden under an invisibility cloak. But then the magic happened: Federer managed a Houdini escape and, in the next game, proceeded to break Cilic for the first time all match, ultimately winning the set, 6–3. He then saved three match points to take the fourth, 7–6 (11–9). The fifth set was classic Federer, complete with sublime passing shots and wicked forehand winners, and Fed quickly ran away with it, 6–3.
The victory sets Federer up for a semifinal match with world no. 7 Milos Raonic, and if things hold to form, a potential championship match against Andy Murray, whom Federer beat at Wimbledon for his last Grand Slam title in 2012 (also an Olympic year — the similarities are uncanny).
In an era of commodified, prepackaged athlete farewell tours, Federer’s latest Wimbledon run feels refreshingly organic. Why brand your swan song to death when you can just win the biggest tournament in your sport? Of course, Fed isn’t retiring, but this could very well be his last big hurrah at a Grand Slam. And if it is, what a way to cap off a career:
The last three sets of this match hit all the hallmarks of classic Federer: a stirring comeback, supreme gracefulness, and, ultimately, sheer domination. Since Muhammad Ali, no athlete has floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee quite like Federer. If not for his injury earlier this year, which forced him to withdraw from the French Open and miss his first Grand Slam since 1999, there’d be no reason to doubt that he was a robot engineered to play tennis as beautifully as possible. Federer may not be immortal, but he’s always seemed less mortal than his lowly competitors.
Federer’s greatness remains one of the most glorious things in sports, and also one of the most unanimously agreed upon. Ten years after David Foster Wallace compared watching Federer to a religious experience, Fed showed once again why his church is thriving. He may not be as dominant as he was during his heyday, but when he’s on, he’s just as spectacular as ever. On Wednesday, Federer gave fans another signature moment, and if all goes well, there will be more to come this weekend. But if not, at least we had today.