You cannot truly measure greatness. You can describe it and possibly define it, but measuring greatness is as futile as trying to weigh a human soul. Some things are better appreciated in the moment than analyzed. Yet it isn’t the end result that keeps us tennis fans enthralled, it is the process of trying to achieve it. The reason why we will all be having a G.O.A.T debate twenty years from now is because it is practically impossible to capture the true meaning of being “the greatest”. Yet the subject in itself is compelling and so we talk, fueled by the memories of iconic accomplishments and titanic matches much like the one yesterday between Roger Federer and Marin Cilic.
Looking at the draw, it was clear that this potential match up was going to be a dangerous one for Federer. The first thing that jumped out to me was the glaring difference in the quality of the opponents. Pella, Willis, Evans, and Johnson could all have been opponents in a challenger level tournament. The draw gods had been kind to Federer and his making quick work of these opponents, was expected – even for an almost thirty-five year old champ, returning from injury. But now into the quarterfinals, he would be facing his first real test in the tournament and his first seed. Marin Cilic.
Cilic is a bit of an enigma. It is easy to forget that he is a grand slam champion. I wager, that Marin Cilic is the least covered grand slam champion of all time. Even an out of competition Del Potro manages to generate more headlines than the quiet Croat. I think Cilic himself forgets that he is a grand slam champion. He’s struggled with a few injuries over the last twelve months, but the danger is always there, that he’ll one day remember who he became two years ago at the U.S Open. That day came yesterday. You just knew this one had classic – or upset depending on how you look at it – written all over it, from the first set. The match followed a similar script to that of Querrey and Djokovic, a few days earlier. A competitive first set, ended in a tie-break victory for Marin Cilic. He rode the momentum to a more comfortable second set victory and showed no signs of letting up in the third.
I’ll be honest in saying I’d penciled Cilic down as the winner at this point. Out of all the big serving giants, an in-form Marin Cilic is probably the most dangerous to play against. It has very little to do with the big game he brings to the court either. At the core of Cilic’s game is a high tennis intellect. He is by all accounts a cerebral assassin, quietly analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of his opponent, while fine-tuning his game to exploit those weaknesses. It adds a different element of potency to a game that is already potent by it’s very nature. As my coach used to say, “the only thing more dangerous than a big serve is a big serve with direction.” Cilic came out with a definite game plan: break down the Federer backhand with weighted shots off of both wings, hit the sledge hammer into the open court, and cover the net with the massive wing span he possesses. For a time it worked like a charm and it appeared that not for the first time, Federer was being ushered out a tournament, by a dangerous hard hitting opponent.
However, you don’t get to win 17 grand slam titles without having some grit to your makeup. Sets three and four were probably the most harrowing sets to watch, if you are a Federer fan. Yet Federer himself was able to steel his nerves against the barrage. He refused to break under the pressure and forced the fourth set. The movement hadn’t quite been there, and the free flowing game hadn’t been given room to flow much at all, but the survivor was wide awake. Survive he did. Once Federer took the third set, I found myself holding off on my victory blog post for Cilic. This felt like 2009 all over again and once Federer’s begun to solve the rubix cube that is his opponent’s game, it is almost impossible to stop him. From here on, the match began to follow a familiar script. The dismissal of those match points were like the punctuated endings of set points. The match had reset, once Federer won the third set. It was just a matter of time now, and after winning a tie-break for the ages, Federer ever the legendary front runner, wasted no time in jumping on top of the decider. He closed it out with an ace and a customary finger wag.
In the aftermath of this latest storied performance by a living legend, it is easy to forget that the tournament is not over. Federer has to win two more matches to solidly make monkeys out of just about everyone. The question is, will his aging body allow him do it? Recently, Federer has checked out in matches following his five set tussles. The last one was against Gael Monfils in the 2014 edition of the U.S Open. In the next match, he barely put up any resistance as he lost to none other than Marin Cilic. On Friday, Federer faces another stiff test in Milos Raonic. Somehow I doubt he’ll go out without a fight this time. He has talked passionately about this tournament, since the beginning of the year and was willing to sacrifice the French Open to give himself the best possible chance to play in it. I suspect that at this stage, he’s got one goal on his mind. Winning it all.
We’ll be watching.