Wimbledon | Don’t judge Marin Cilic by this match

Croatia's Marin Cilic with the runners-up plate after losing to Switzerland's Roger Federer in the Men's Singles final match on day thirteen at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships in London Sunday, July 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
AP Photo/Alastair Grant

The noted philosopher — and native of Great Britain — Mick Jagger offered a cautionary note about life once upon a time: “You can’t always get what you want.” This applies to the Wimbledon men’s singles final on Sunday, a satisfying moment for Roger Federer, his family, and his team… and unsatisfying for everyone else.

In a match overshadowed by an injury to Marin Cilic, Federer — without having to be pushed to the full extent of his capacities — cruised to a straight-set win which was, at its end, anticlimactic. The occasion — laden with so much history — promised a huge outpouring of emotions from both men, but it concluded not with a bang, but a whimper. The skies threatened to drop rain on Centre Court, but never quite did, an apt metaphor for a match — and an ATP tournament — which didn’t nourish the tennis fan’s soul the way it could have.

That same metaphor — a chance of rain, but no burst from the clouds — characterized Cilic’s game. It seemed ready to rain down bullets on Federer in the early going, but as soon as Federer managed to hit soft, off-pace shots, Cilic lost rhythm and his serve in the fifth game of the match. Shortly afterward, he lost the plot.

In the middle of the first set, with Federer up 4-2, it seemed that Cilic’s mind and his tennis were the reasons for his abrupt slide, but when he broke into tears early in the second set and later received medical attention for his foot, it became evident that a physical impairment (something far, far more constraining than the cold Federer carried around the All England Club this fortnight) lay at the heart of his downturn.

Federer — who has not always played well against injured opponents (recall an Indian Wells semifinal against Andy Murray nearly a decade ago) — found a comfort zone on his serve, and that was all he needed to very quickly put away a match which became a competitive and emotional dud.

It’s not Federer’s fault, but it was the souffle-puncturing scenario a worldwide audience was given on Sunday at Centre Court.

Though a physical injury was indeed the source of Cilic’s problems, a lot of casual fans — especially those who turned off the match precisely when they saw Cilic crying early in the second set — will walk away (or more precisely, already have walked away, past tense…) and think very little of Cilic.

People who don’t follow tennis 24-7-365 — or who don’t even focus on Wimbledon and the U.S. Open until the semifinals, when the big dogs typically face each other — will get the impression that Cilic isn’t very impressive, or that his run to the final was a fluke, chiefly the byproduct of not having to face Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals.

That inclination among a (large) subset of casual fans is understandable — again, IF one does not follow tennis on a regular basis — but it would also be unfair.

Casual tennis fans — who watch major-tournament semifinals and finals in much the same way that a lot of Catholics attend Mass only at Christmas or Easter every year — need to know a few facts before thinking Marin Cilic eroded his legacy at Wimbledon.

Cilic — not Milos Raonic, not Tomas Berdych, not Juan Martin del Potro, not Kei Nishikori, not Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, not David Ferrer — made his second major final at this tournament. So many hugely talented male tennis players have made a major-tournament final only once, the Big Four plus (more recently) Stan Wawrinka consistently standing in the way over the past decade.

A large number of other talented players — think of Grigor Dimitrov and Gael Monfils, among many others — have not even made ONE major final.

Cilic entered this tournament facing the pressure not of being a one-hit wonder (though that was part of the burden he has carried since his 2014 U.S. Open title), but of being favored to do well.

Cilic, favored to do well?

It was improbable, but it was true.

Wawrinka and Andy Murray were both physically limited — they were in his half of the draw, and Federer wasn’t. Rafael Nadal had just won the French Open, but on grass, Cilic — purely as an extension of grass-court comfort and present-day form — had the advantage on paper. Nadal entered Wimbledon this year without a quarterfinal appearance at SW19 since his run to the final in 2011.

Yes, Cilic really did have a great opportunity to face Federer in the final.

He lived up to the billing.

Don’t let one awful afternoon — marked by acute distress, overflowing nerves, and ultimately, a sufficiently significant injury — reduce your estimation of Marin Cilic.

He has done more than so many of his peers by making a second major final. Anyone who follows tennis on a consistent basis knows that he has gained immense respect in the locker room among his colleagues on the tour, and that he has increased his standing in the sport.

Let the entirety of Marin Cilic’s 2017 Wimbledon fortnight speak to his place in tennis. Allow this awful day at the office to guide your opinion only if you’ve never had a bad day yourself.

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