14 Years After First Conquering Wimbledon, Roger Federer Still Men's Tennis King

Greg CouchNational ColumnistJuly 16, 2017

Switzerland's Roger Federer kisses the trophy after defeating Croatia's Marin Cilic to win the Men's Singles final match on day thirteen at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships in London Sunday, July 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
Alastair Grant/Associated Press

All these years later, all the changes in tennis, all the generations. All the changes in the world, really. And what do we get?

Roger Federer. Wimbledon champion. Again and again. And again, and again, and again...eight times now.

Federer beat Marin Cilic 6-3, 6-1, 6-4 in the Wimbledon final Sunday, and he was so dominant that Cilic, the 2014 U.S. Open champ, seemed to have a panic attack in the middle of the second set—crying hopelessly while he sat on a chair as a trainer stood by him, consoling and working on his blistered foot.

It was Federer's record eighth Wimbledon title, record 19th major title. About to turn 36, Federer just went two weeks without losing a set and without being pressured in the most prestigious tournament in the world. There must be a few more records in that sentence.

"If you believe, you can go far in life," Federer said to the crowd after the match. "I kept believing."

Alastair Grant/Associated Press

Let's be honest: That isn't completely true. He did not keep believing. It's actually what makes his story even more incredible.

There's a saying in boxing that every great champion has one great fight left in them. But that's not what's happening.

People have been using the term "turn back the clock" with Federer's run. That's not what's happening, either.

He is not finding old form. Instead, he's creating new form. That's what is most amazing, most exciting. At an age when most tennis players have long retired, Federer is better now than he was a few years ago. It's not that he's playing better in the moment but that he is better.

And that's going to last for a while. The only person on tour who can even challenge him now—speaking of repeating history—is his rival, Rafael Nadal. One of them is going to be ranked No. 1 by the end of the year. While the rankings don't show it, Federer, who beat Nadal in the Australian Open final, is actually the best player in the world again.

He's mentally fitter than he was over the past few years. That just doesn't happen to aging superstars. Typically, younger players don't grasp the meaning of the biggest moments in their sports. It's mostly because they don't fully appreciate them yet. With older players, the meaning gets bigger and bigger when they realize the number of chances they have left is getting smaller and smaller.

Tim Ireland/Associated Press

And so there are mental lapses. Venus Williams had one in the women's final Saturday, nearly winning the first set and then falling apart.

Federer had them for a few years until January. Oh, he definitely had his drop-off. Not too many years ago, he stubbornly stuck with an old-fashioned racquet that allowed power players to push him around. He lost a step, too.

He lost his nerve, especially against Nadal. No, Federer did not believe. He also made a habit of playing great early in majors and then buckling mentally and losing when he shouldn't.

He isn't Superman. He's better because he overcame real problems that none of the greatest players in sports history have been able to overcome at that age.

He finally did switch to a modern racquet, a stiffer one that didn't flex backward in his hand. That allowed him to step up to the baseline and play closer and more aggressively rather than lose nerve on his backhand. He found more power in his serve.

And instead of folding under the pressure that young players are oblivious to, Federer somehow sees how they are affected. It's clear to him. And he uses that to his fullest.

It was just such a sharp contrast to see Cilic sobbing on the court while Federer kept attacking him. Cilic had spent the past few days talking about his mental toughness. Now, it's hard to see how he'll recover from this match.

"I gave my best, and that's all I could do," Cilic said afterward.

Marin Cilic in tears during the second set.
Marin Cilic in tears during the second set.Daniel Leal-Olivas/Associated Press/Associated Press

Meanwhile, Federer told ESPN: "I'm definitely playing sort of fun tennis."

This was just so easy for Federer. But where does it leave tennis to have a guy about to turn 36 in charge?

Lucky, that's where. One problem for the sport is that it has to replace its champions every few years and doesn't have built-in home-team fanbases. The game is just too grueling, mentally and physically. Now, tennis is about to start a second decade with the greatest individual rivalry of all time: Federer vs. Nadal.

They have combined to win all three of 2017's majors.

There are two halves to that story, really. Two old guys are dominating the game. On the other side, that means the young guys can't catch up. In this case, tennis' next generation is shockingly weak. In general, young players have amazing strokes and speed and power but have no idea what they're doing on the court.

Let me rephrase that: It's not "in general." That applies to all of them. So none of them even reached the semifinals of Wimbledon. Instead, American Sam Querrey, who was supposed to be the next great thing a few tennis generations ago, reached his first major final four at age 29. The other semifinalist was 31-year old career bridesmaid Tomas Berdych.

So, the younger generation has allowed Federer and Nadal to stay on top. But Federer and Nadal have both found ways to get better, too. And tennis gets to roll on with a rivalry that is so compelling that it breaks the sport into the mainstream.

Federer and Nadal meet at the net after their epic 2008 Wimbledon final.
Federer and Nadal meet at the net after their epic 2008 Wimbledon final.Julian Finney/Getty Images

Unfortunately for Federer, the biggest moment of his career was a loss to Nadal at the 2008 Wimbledon final. Now, if they would just play each other in the U.S. Open final, that could change.

When it was over Sunday, Federer was asked about his kids, and he looked over at them in the crowd and said, "They have no clue what's going on. They think it's a nice view and nice playground."

From the looks of things, their dad felt the same way.

    

Greg Couch covers tennis for Bleacher Report. He is also the head men's and women's tennis coach at Roosevelt University in Chicago.