During the 2006 U.S. Open final, Tiger Woods sat in Roger Federer’s players’ box to root on his new friend.
At the time, Federer and Woods shared much in common. They were both at the peak of their sports, both worshiped by their fans, and both chasing history.
Federer, then 25, beat Andy Roddick in that U.S. Open final for his ninth career Grand Slam title, moving him five behind Pete Sampras’s then-record of 14, which Sampras had just set six years before. Woods, then 30, owned 12 majors in golf, six behind Jack Nicklaus’s all-time mark of 18, a record many thought he would eventually eclipse.
“More and more often over the last year or so, I’ve been compared to Tiger, what he’s doing on the golf tour, what I’m doing on the tennis tour,” Federer said then. “This was the day when we finally got to meet and chat. I asked how it was for him in golf. It’s funny, he knew exactly how I had felt out there on the court.”
Fast forward to Sunday in suburban London, where Woods was nowhere near Centre Court at Wimbledon. Federer, who turns 36 next month, dismantled poor Marin Cilic, 6-3, 6-1, 6-4, to win his 19th Grand Slam title and his eighth Wimbledon, the latter achievement breaking a tie with Sampras and William Renshaw. After not winning a major title from 2013-16, Federer has now won two in 2017.
“To be back here and holding the trophy now, and the tournament that I played, not dropping a set, it’s just magical really,” Federer said. “I can’t believe it yet.”
Federer, who won his second Grand Slam tournament of the year — this one without dropping a set — also surpassed the great Nicklaus to become the greatest men’s winner in history in tennis or golf.
Stop and let that sink in for a second.
Cilic entered with a puncher’s chance, having dismantled Federer back in the 2014 U.S. Open semifinals en route to his only Grand Slam title, but history did not repeat itself on this day.
At one point during the second set, the 6-foot-6 Cilic sat crying into a white towel as the doctor and trainer came out to pat him on the back and offers words of encouragement. It was unclear at the time whether Cilic had sustained an injury, or if nerves, and Federer, had just reduced him to tears with all the tennis world watching.
After the second set, Cilic took a medical timeout to have his foot worked on by the trainers, indicating a physical injury. His side-to-side movement did appear to be impaired in the latter stages of the match. Cilic — who might have retired in an ATP 500 match or another moment of far less significance — made sure to finish this match and play vigorously to the last point. He showed flashes of quality in the third set, digging out a tough hold of serve at love-30, but it simply wasn’t enough.
“To all my fans in Croatia, it was really tough today and I gave it all and I’m hoping definitely that I’m going to come back here and try it one more time,” Cilic said.
Of Cilic’s physical struggles, Federer had this to say in an on-court interview after the match with the BBC’s Sue Barker:
“It is cruel sometimes, but he fought well and he’s a hero, so congratulations on a wonderful tournament, Marin.”
As for the Woods comparison, Tiger won the last of his 14 majors at the 2008 U.S. Open, nearly a decade ago. At this point, back surgeries and the breakup of his marriage (and the destruction of his once spotless public image) have derailed his career. It’s hard to imagine Woods, now 41, ever contending for another major title.
Federer, meantime, continues to put not only Woods (and Nicklaus) in his rearview mirror, but all of his own tennis rivals as well.
With two Slam titles this year in Australia and at Wimbledon to move to 19, Federer is now four ahead of his greatest rival, Nadal (15), and seven ahead of his other great rival, Djokovic (12).
If Fed wins one more set, the all-time Slams list will now look like this:
Federer – 19
Nadal – 15
Sampras – 14
Djokovic – 12
Emerson – 12 pic.twitter.com/8BDd4FAd8Z
— Adam Zagoria (@AdamZagoria) July 16, 2017
It would seem unlikely that Nadal, 31, could catch him at this stage, although the Spaniard figures to be a threat to continue to win Roland Garros (and other majors) for the foreseeable future. After losing in five sets to Federer in the Australian Open final, Nadal won “La Decima” in Paris, marking the first time in the Open Era (since 1968) that any player, man or woman, has won the same major tournament 10 times. (Martina Navratilova’s nine Wimbledons come the closest for any woman in the Open Era.)
Djokovic, 30, meantime, is having his elbow examined in the U.S. and could face surgery after retiring in the Wimbledon quarterfinals against Tomas Berdych. He could shut it down for the rest of the year in much the same way Federer did after Wimbledon last year. For a man who held all four major titles after last year’s French Open, it’s now an open question whether Djokovic will ever win another Grand Slam — not in terms of belief or quality, but in terms of health.
Federer, meantime, was only bothered by a cold at this Wimbledon as he continues to glide along in his mid-30s as a father of four. Remember that Federer slipped and fell in the fifth set in the semifinals a year ago against Milos Raonic, and then took six months off before his triumphant return in 2017, where he has now won five titles, including two Slams.
“He is superhuman,” John McEnroe said on air.
Federer is committed to playing in his hometown Basel tournament — the Swiss Indoors — through 2019, when he will turn 38. How many more majors could he win in that span?
“Let’s not lose sight of the fact that he’s doing something truly extraordinary and so we gotta appreciate this,” McEnroe said before the final. “Now we’re all assuming he’s going to win another four or five, he’s gonna play another two to three years. Come on, please don’t tell me he can do that, too.”
Before looking to the future and the possibility of regaining the World No. 1 ranking at age 36 (he turns 36 on August 8), Federer will savor his entrance into a new realm of tennis history, the previously undiscovered territory of winning eight Wimbledon men’s singles titles:
“Yeah, I guess it’s just relief that I can achieve such heights,” Federer said. “I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to be here again in another finals after the last year. And had some tough ones here, losing to Novak in ’14 and ’15 but I always believed that I could come back and do it again. If you believe you can go really far in your life and I think I did that. I kept on believing and dreaming and here I am today with the eight, it’s fantastic.”
Flashing back to that 2006 U.S. Open final, when Woods and Federer were still friends, still both at their peak, and still both chasing history, Woods summed up Federer thusly: “Roger just gets the job done.”
More than a decade on, that is still very much the case.
Adam Zagoria is a basketball and tennis insider who has run ZAGSBLOG.com since 2006. He is a college basketball and tennis contributor for the FanRag Sports Network. He is also the co-host of The Four Quarters Podcast via VSporto.com, which is available via iTunes. Zagoria is also a contributor to The New York Times. He currently lives in Manhattan with his wife and two children.