Roger Federer has spent most of his life breaking records and passing milestones but the 35-year-old Swiss celebrated his greatest achievement yet here on his favourite court.
Since Spencer Gore claimed the first singles championship at Wimbledon 140 years ago no man had ever won the title eight times, but Federer finally pulled clear of William Renshaw and Pete Sampras, with whom he had been sharing the record of seven victories.
In beating Marin Cilic 6-3, 6-1, 6-4 in a final that lasted just an hour and 41 minutes, Federer created history on the same patch of turf where he had made his first breakthrough 14 years earlier.
Five years after winning his seventh Wimbledon title, Federer claimed his eighth at the age of 35 years and 342 days. Having become the oldest men’s Grand Slam singles champion for 45 years when he won the Australian Open earlier this year, the Swiss has followed it by becoming the oldest man to win Wimbledon in the Open era.
Federer has done it without dropping a set, 12 months after he left this tournament wondering when he would play next because of a troublesome knee.
He ended up taking the rest of the year off, but has returned playing arguably the best tennis of his life. Since his return he has won the titles in Melbourne, Indian Wells and Miami and now at the tournament he loves more than any other.
Asked in his post-match interview how it felt to have come back and won after taking such a long break, Federer joked: “I’ve got to take more time off. I’ll be gone again for the next six months, though I’m not sure whether it’s going to work this fantastic every time that I come back.
“But better than holding the trophy and winning today is just being healthy. It feels great and it means the world to me. We worked so hard last year, so to be back here, feeling great, holding the trophy, and the tournament that I’ve played, not dropping a set, it’s magical. I can’t believe it.”
Asked about becoming the first man to win Wimbledon eight times, Federer said: “It’s disbelief that I can achieve such heights. I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to be here again in another final after last year.
“I’ve had some tough ones here, losing to Novak [Djokovic] in 2014 and 2015. But I always believed that I could maybe come back and do it again. And if you believe you can go really far in your life, I think I did that. I’m happy that I kept on dreaming and believing. And here I am today with the eighth. It’s fantastic.”
Federer’s triumph continues an extraordinary year for the Swiss and his great friend and rival, Rafael Nadal. Federer is only the second man in history – after Nadal, the 10-times French Open champion - to win the same Grand Slam event eight or more times.
For the fifth time Federer and Nadal have split the first three Grand Slam titles of the year between them, though this was the first time they have done so since 2010. Federer also became the first man to play in 11 Grand Slam finals at the same event, while his 29th Grand Slam final put him seven clear of Nadal, the second man on the all-time list.
Cilic, the 2014 US Open champion, had gone desperately close to beating Federer in the quarter-finals here last year, but on this occasion the 28-year-old Croat had no answer to the former world No 1’s brilliance.
Midway through the second set Cilic sat on his chair in tears at a changeover, though it was not clear whether that was down to an ankle injury or to sheer despair at being so outclassed.
To be blunt, Federer did not need to be anywhere near his best. Cilic did not put enough first serves in court, made far too many unforced errors and never looked capable of holding back the king of Centre Court for long.
After Saturday’s women’s final had been played under a closed roof because of rain, the conditions 24 hours later were almost perfect. The temperature was a muggy 23C and there was barely a breath of wind inside Centre Court.
Both men made a nervous start, errors flowing from their rackets as Cilic held service in the opening game. With that game out of the way, however, the contest quickly settled into a rhythm, with both men striking the ball consistently well from the back of the court.
Federer had to save a break point at 1-2, but it was the Swiss who made the breakthrough in the following game.
Cilic, serving, put a forehand in the net on the opening point and lost a breath-taking drop shot exchange on the second, the crowd erupting into a roar as Federer stretched to put away his winner after his opponent had fallen in hitting a beautifully deft backhand crosscourt. It was unclear at the time whether that was the moment that Cilic suffered an injury which scuppered his chances.
A loose backhand then saw Cilic go 0-40 down and Federer went on to convert his third break point with two big backhands.
The former world No 1 wasted no time capitalising on his advantage. He appeared to be in total control for the rest of the set and won one point with ludicrous ease, hitting a drop shot winner as casually as if he had been picking up his beer from the bar.
Cilic, meanwhile, went into freefall. Serving at 3-5 and 30-30, the world No 6 got his racket on one huge backhand from Federer, which drew a gasp from the crowd, only for the Swiss to thunder another which eluded him and landed inside the baseline. Cilic saved the ensuing set point with a service winner, but two points later his double fault handed Federer the set after just 36 minutes.
After Federer had gone 3-0 up in the second set Cilic sent for the doctor and trainer at the changeover. He was soon sobbing into a towel, apparently inconsolable, and for a while you wondered whether the final would end in a retirement for the first time in 106 years.
However, Cilic recovered his composure and actually won the next game. At 1-4, nevertheless, Federer broke again. The Swiss went to break point after returning a 134mph serve – Cilic’s fastest of the tournament – and promptly converted it when his opponent missed a volley.
After Federer had taken the second set with an ace the trainer and doctor came back on court to tend to Cilic, who took a medical time-out. The doctor gave him some medication and the trainer treated his left foot, which had been heavily strapped.
Cilic improved in the third set, but at 3-3 he was broken for the last time after losing two points in a row with netted forehands. Federer served out for his victory, completing the job on his second match point with an ace down the middle.
“This is such a special court,” Federer said afterwards. “So many legends have marked this court in the men’s game, the women’s game, doubles, mixed, you name it. So to be here with Marin, celebrating tennis, it’s very special.
“From day one to finals day Centre Court is always packed and we the players appreciate that so, so much. It’s a dream to play here really and I hope this wasn’t my last match. I hope I can come back next year and try to defend the title.”
An emotional Cilic said: “Throughout my career I’ve never given up when I’ve started a match. That was also my idea today. I gave my best. That’s all I could do.” He added: “I had an amazing journey here. I played the best tennis of my life.”
Federer said: “It is cruel sometimes, but he fought well. He’s a hero. Congratulations on a wonderful tournament, Marin. You should be really proud.”