Hello. It’s interesting. If you’re actually at Wimbledon, you don’t actually have to watch a Roger Federer match to know how it’s going. You don’t even have to listen the umpire calling out the score after each point. All you need to do is stand outside Centre Court and listen to the crowd. If they’re in a state of unbridled glee verging on pure lust, if they’re oohing and aahing and panting and fawning after every point, you can safely interpret that as Federer dominance. Enthusiastic applause: Federer’s won the point. Grudging applause: the other bloke’s not playing ball.
This is how it’s supposed to go. This is Federer’s kingdom, his palace from palace. There’s no desire for him to be pushed too hard. There’s no interest in an upset. Sure, it’s nice to see Federer’s opponent muster some defiance, just to keep the show going for as long as possible, but he’s not actually supposed to win. He’s supposed to be a good boy, know his place, let the master do as he pleases and lose in straight sets. You are the comedy sidekick, there to be willingly loaded into a cannon, to have a custard pie slammed in your face and raise no objections; take it, it’s all you’re good for here. This is the deal. There might be some pretence from the crowd that they’d like to see something resembling a contest, some confected jeopardy, like a tie-break in the first set, which is really about as dangerous and adventurous as splashing out on the Creuset pan instead of the John Lewis own brand (other brands are available). The Fed-lust can only stand so much risk.
Centre Court, in all its stuffy blazered glory, really just wants to bask in reverie for Roger. He’s nice like Tim, but he’s even better at tennis. Andy is stubborn and pretty brilliant, so he’s an excellent alternative. Novak is mysterious and brutal, but he can be a bit bad-tempered. Rafa is sweet and amazing and Spanish, a fine young man, ever so handsome, but he isn’t an artist. None of them turn up on court wearing a cardigan or a blazer – that’s true class. None of them are Roger. They love Roger. WE LOVE YOU ROGER. I LOVE YOU ROGER. MARRY ME ROGER. Did I say that out loud? Oh, what am I like!
This is what stands in front of Marin Cilic today: Federer the player and Federer the legend. He isn’t supposed to win. It’s not that the seventh seed isn’t an interesting player, of course, or incapable of playing the kind of tennis that could urinate all over the eagerly anticipated Swiss coronation. It’s just that he isn’t Roger. Nor is the former US Open champion much of a character, a card. He’s just a guy who’s good at tennis. Unlike Goran Ivanisevic, the last Croatian man to win Wimbledon, there’s no Good Marin, Bad Marin and Emergency Marin. There’s just Marin. It might not be enough to win their affections.
It could be enough to win this final, though. Cilic is playing excellent grass-court tennis this year and he crushed Federer on the way to winning the US Open in 2014. At his best, shorn of nerves and anxiety, he is a mighty proposition. If the 28-year-old doesn’t freeze, he could do something here. He was two sets up against Federer in their quarter-final last year. Underestimate him at your peril.
But for all that it has been possible to catch a few signs of Federer frailty over the past fortnight, he still won that match and he still hasn’t really come close to dropping a set at this tournament. And last year he had that knee injury. This time he’s well rested, having worked out how best to protect his physical resources after that knee injury, and he’s been untouchable this year, playing quick, sharp-shooting, ask-no-questions tennis that is intended to kill the argument as quickly as possible. It’s brought him another Australian Open title, his 18th major, and titles in Miami and Indian Wells. It could bring him an historic eighth Wimbledon title.
This is Cilic’s second grand slam final. It’s Federer’s 11th here and his 29th overall. He’s 36 in less than a month. This isn’t normal. But he isn’t normal. You wonder when it’s going to end. Is it going to end? You know what they want on Centre Court. More Roger. They can’t get enough Roger. And do you know? It’s because there’s nothing else quite like it.
Play begins at: 2pm BST.