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Once with Roger Federer at Wimbledon, it was all about certain perfection. You knew the end result and you knew the impossible shots and dreamy moves that would take him there.
What has made this startling late renaissance – confirmed with his straight-set victory over a woebegone Marin Cilic – arguably sweeter still than even those glory days is the doubt.
Doubt that he could ever be what he was. Doubt that five years without a Wimbledon title, having once held such dominance that he won five in a row, could be an interregnum rather than the end. Doubt that six months off after his semi-final defeat a year ago, by a man a decade younger, wasn’t the thin end of retirement in disguise.
You watched Federer last year and beyond to be reminded in little passages of what he used to be able to do, and to say that you had seen him doing it. The pleasure of those little living flashbacks came with the melancholic sense that they were the past rather than the present, and that the future would see gentle decay eat away a little more with each year.
You loved Peak Federer because he could control a court and find shots and angles that you could barely imagine. And then slowly he became more like you in ways you didn’t want: hurting his knee running a bath for his kids, falling face down on the court in futile chase of a Milos Raonic forehand, hair that had once been a ponytail and then bushy starting to creep back like the grass on the Centre Court baseline. When he switched to a bigger racquet in 2014, it was like seeing a flying ace reaching for reading glasses.
The decline was long and it was true. After his impregnability was shattered by Rafa Nadal in 2008, two more Wimbledon titles came – but they sandwiched two quarter-finals defeats and were succeeded by second-round humiliation to a man ranked 116 in the world.
He could cast magic in hot bursts, pulling Andy Murray apart in the semi-final two years ago, but the spell would not hold, as a dead-eyed dismantling by Novak Djokovic followed in the final.
At the start of this year, the doubt was everywhere but in his own mind. First came that astonishing Australian Open final against Nadal in January, when it felt like the Beatles reforming for a one-off gig in 1979, and now this: not a greatest hits tour, but a fresh wonder; not a faded version of a better past, but history remade again.
He is the first man in tennis history to reach the final of a single Grand Slam 11 times, and the first man at Wimbledon to win eight singles titles. He has a 19th Grand Slam title, four more than his old nemesis Nadal, seven more than Djokovic, victor in his previous two Wimbledon finals.
And he has done it as he did it a tennis lifetime ago: reducing opponents to the role of stooge, their presence on some shots merely to help the composition of the image; footwork that should be frantic to get him anywhere near position, instead taking him there unhurried and unflustered, as if stepping through a loop in time; seeing angles and then making them in a way that would be impressive enough in snooker, computed while ruminatively rubbing chalk on cue tip, let alone sprinting while appearing not to be sprinting.
Beautiful to his acolytes, it is also horribly cruel on the men he plays. In his semi-final win over Tomas Berdych, he hit a squash-style forehand pass cross-court that left his opponent, who had played the ideal approach shot and was standing exactly where he should have been at the net, redundant and humiliated.
It came in the 10th game of the final set, break of serve already secured, in a game he did not care about winning.
Poor Cilic was in tears before an hour of the final had been played, a set and a break down, his hopes heading down the gurgler before he could take any of it in. It made the final a wake as well as a celebration.
Against a player like no other, Federer’s opponent also has to accept that the crowd will be stacked against them too. There is partisan, and then there is Centre Court when its greatest champion is back for more.
Wimbledon can appear very pleased with itself sometimes, reclining on its grand traditions, dressing its officials like guests at a Gatsby garden party, spending a little too long looking in the mirror telling itself how good it looks. For some, Federer is part of that: the monogrammed blazers he wore on to court in 2006 and 2007, the 1930s cardigan with gold piping and buttons of the following years.
On Centre Court on days like this, the relationship makes better sense. In an arena that combines 1920s design with a 21st-century roof, Federer is both an aesthetic throwback, unfurling that one-handed backhand, serve-volleying when he chooses, and a man at ease in a digital world, his 7.6 million Twitter followers 70 times that of Cilic.
You see serious people who otherwise never run scrambling through the corridors to get to their seats. When they do, they are forever teetering on the brink of collapsing weak-kneed into his arms, just waiting for the tiniest nudge from his racquet to start purring once again.
Only on one Sunday every year does Centre Court come to life. Federer has now been at its heart 11 times. The stadium has defined him, and he has garlanded it.
Fortune has come his way in the last few weeks. This was the first time in almost eight years that he hadn’t had to play one of the other Big Four en route to a Slam final.
There was still doubt on Sunday morning, just as there had been when Berdych had been offered six break points in the semi. There was worry among the faithful about what Cilic might do after that US Open thrashing in 2014 and having reached the final at Queen’s last month, at least until the match began and a procession ensued.
But there was conviction again too, with the narrative of the whole fortnight turning on the prospect of him doing it all again, once it was clear that there would be no hoorays about Murray’s hip and that the Konta wave would crash against another great old champion.
“At times I thought I was dreaming,” said the round-cheeked teenage Federer when he beat Pete Sampras, who had won the previous four titles, in the fourth round here in 2001.
That is what it felt like again on Sunday, watching him lift the old gold pot to the dark green stands 16 years on, born-again believers all around, Centre Court his once more.
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