WIMBLEDON, England — Marin Cilic has come much closer than most to defeating Roger Federer on Centre Court at Wimbledon.
Last year, in the quarterfinals, Cilic had three match points in the fourth set before Federer found a way to wriggle free and rally for a 6-7 (4), 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (9), 6-3 victory.
“Marin had him on the ropes,” said Mario Ancic, Cilic’s friend and fellow Croat, who helped coach Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon this year.
Putting Federer back in so vulnerable a position should be quite a bit trickier for Cilic on Sunday when the two meet again on Centre Court, this time in the Wimbledon final.
A year ago, Federer was still searching for confidence, still dealing with pain in his back and his postoperative left knee. But this year, he has swept nearly all before him, having played six tournaments before Wimbledon and won four of them.
Now, Federer has the chance to break his tie with the 20th-century star Pete Sampras and the 19th-century stalwart William Renshaw and become the first man to win eight singles titles at Wimbledon.
It has been 14 years since Federer won his first Wimbledon in 2003 and five years since he last won it in 2012.
“You make it sound like the gap is huge,” he said at a news conference on Friday after defeating Tomas Berdych, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (4), 6-4, in the semifinals. “I don’t feel like it’s that long ago, to be honest; 2003 feels like ages ago, because of the ponytail, the beard, whatever, you name it. This one is different. I kind of looked the same back in 2012, or at least I hope so.”
He was not quite in full flow on Friday against Berdych, a former Wimbledon finalist who was in a particularly resolute frame of mind even if he still lost to Federer for an eighth straight time.
But the high quality of Federer’s body of work in 2017 is indisputable, and he has yet to drop a set at the All England Club. He deserves to be the clear favorite against the seventh-seeded Cilic, but that does not mean Cilic deserves to be counted out.
“If he plays well and plays big, he can give anyone trouble,” said Sam Querrey, who lost on Friday to Cilic, 6-7 (6), 6-4, 7-6 (3), 7-5.
But Querrey also made another point: “Roger seems to be playing at a level that’s as good as he ever played. Marin is going to have his hands full.”
In their seven previous meetings, Federer’s one defeat came in straight sets in the semifinals of the 2014 United States Open, with Cilic deep in the zone and en route to his first and only major singles title.
Federer was coming off a draining five-set victory over Gaël Monfils in the quarterfinals, but Cilic also played straightforward power tennis, imposing his own rhythm from the baseline and serving brilliantly after having reworked his delivery with the help of his coach at the time, Goran Ivanisevic.
For the better part of three sets, Cilic did the same to Federer at Wimbledon last year. But leading by two sets to love, he let Federer escape at 3-3 from a 0-40 deficit on his serve. Cilic then failed to convert any of his three match points in the fourth set, missing returns off second serves to squander two of them.
“If there is a lesson from last year’s match then it is when Federer is down, you need to stamp on him, kick him, hurt him some more,” Ivanisevic wrote in a piece for The Times of London this week. “Roger is like someone from a film: Kill him and he gets up, so you have to kill him again. You have to kill him about 77 times to win.”
Cilic, much more mild-mannered than Ivanisevic, would certainly not put it quite that way. He is a measured presence off the court, speaking in paragraphs in a deep nasal voice.
“It was just, you know, decision-making at those crucial points — match points, break points even,” Cilic said of last year’s Wimbledon defeat to Federer. “In those critical moments, my mind-set, picking the shots maybe wasn’t the best. I learned from that. But over all with the game, I felt throughout the match I played really well.”
Cilic and Ivanisevic stopped working together last July. They remain friendly and now have something special in common as the only two Croats to reach a Wimbledon singles final.
Ivanisevic played in four, finally winning as a wild card in 2001 by beating Pat Rafter in a classic five-set final, then celebrating bare-chested on the grounds.
Cilic, 28, is more likely to keep his shirt on if he upsets Federer, but his new coach, the former Swedish star Jonas Bjorkman, is encouraging him to be more expressive during matches.
“When you’re a nice guy like Marin,” Bjorkman said, “you also need to show you have a little bit of the beast inside you, and I think that’s been really good the last couple matches. I’ve seen a lot more sort of fist-pumping, and I think that’s great. He’s nearly two meters tall. You can intimidate a lot of players being out there and showing the character you have — that you are out there to win.”
But fist pumps will get an opponent only so far against Federer on Centre Court at something that resembles the peak of his powers.
To make it a compelling contest again, Cilic will have to continue to serve brilliantly and use his wingspan and undervalued returns to extend rallies and force Federer into pressing. He will also have to take risk after risk and convert.
“Against the best players you have to play this way, even if it’s sometimes a bit extreme,” Federer said. “And I think Marin has succeeded in getting to this level, not all the time but enough to feel comfortable in big matches. His serve has improved and changed since working with Ivanisevic. He hits it faster after the toss, which makes it harder to read because honestly, in the past, for someone so tall, he didn’t serve as well as he should. Now he serves well, very well. So we’ll see on Sunday.”
With a victory on Sunday, Federer, who turns 36 next month, would become the oldest man in the Open era to win the Wimbledon singles title. He will have the Centre Court crowd behind him, probably even more than usual.
“What I’m happy about is I’m fresh in the second week at Wimbledon,” Federer said. “That was the idea behind skipping the French Open: to be healthy and in form at Wimbledon. And that worked out for me.”
An earlier version of this article misstated the year Goran Ivanisevic finally won as a wild card by beating Pat Rafter in a classic five-set final. It was 2001, not 2011.