What Marin Cilic learned from his close losses against Roger Federer

11:01 AM ET

It’s Marin Cilic‘s turn again to ride the mechanical bull that is Roger Federer.

Cilic, the lean and sinewy 6-foot-6 power server is the last man standing between Wimbledon No. 3 seed Federer and an Open era record eighth Wimbledon title.

If you haven’t been following too closely, you might be tempted to cede the title to Federer now that his Big Four peers — Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal — have been driven from the utopian confines of the All England Club. The august quartet has won the past 14 singles titles contested at Wimbledon.

But the reality is that Cilic has stayed atop Federer to the buzzer in one Grand Slam encounter, and he wasn’t bucked off until the absolute final moment in another. Those are the past two matches the men have played, so you can throw that 6-1 series lead Federer enjoys right out the window. This Croatian cowboy has clung to Federer like a bad memory.

Cilic’s lone win over Federer was a resonant one. His Bunyan-esque serve won the battle against the Swiss icon’s generally effective return in a high-visibility US Open semifinal in 2014. It’s a theme that might resurface on Sunday. Then just last year in the Wimbledon quarterfinals, Cilic held three match points before Federer gored him.

That last loss to Federer is still fresh in Cilic’s mind. He says that in recent years such close losses have helped him “mature a bit” and bolstered his self-confidence. They’ve also helped land him in this final.

“I would say that I’m now in a little bit of a better form,” Cilic told reporters after his semifinal win. “I’m maybe just slightly mentally stronger, maybe learned a few more lessons, valuable lessons.”

Seeded No. 7, Cilic moves very well for his size. He carries a big forehand and potentially lethal backhand. Cilic generates more serving power than the Grand Coulee Dam. In many ways Cilic is a lot like another man who’s gone the distance to beat Federer in a major: Juan Martin del Potro.

Also like that injury-plagued but beloved Argentine, Cilic is an introvert, subject to mood swings. Those are expressed as fluctuations in his results. Cilic, always a highly touted talent, has come and gone like a cool breeze. He was ranked outside the top 20 less than two years ago this month. As recently as April, as Federer continued to light up the sky, Cilic was down in the dumps. He was 7-8 going into May but is now 29-13, and 12-2 on grass leading up to Wimbledon. “I didn’t start really well this year,” Cilic said. “But still I kept believing.”

Federer isn’t taking anything for granted, not with yet more outlandish records one match away. He reserved a shout-out during his news conference for Marcos Baghdatis and Fernando Gonzalez, two players he faced in previous Grand Slam finals. “Thank God I’ve played also guys who were not called Rafa, Andy or Novak in the past,” he said, adding that it’s a nice change to play a new challenger. “But it doesn’t make things easier.”

W2W4 at Wimbledon: The numbers behind Roger Federer, Marin Cilic

Roger Federer and Marin Cilic face off in the Wimbledon men’s final on Sunday. We break down the numbers.

  • Don’t ask how Federer keeps winning — just enjoy the show

    Trying to figure out why Roger Federer isn’t slowing down or how much longer he can play at this level is as fruitless as trying to beat him. Just ask Tomas Berdych, his Wimbledon semifinal victim.

  • Federer gets by Berdych, on to Wimbledon final

    Roger Federer topped Tomas Berdych in three sets to advance to the Wimbledon final, where he’ll face Marin Cilic on Sunday.

  • Also, as much as last year’s match remains an open wound for Cilic, Federer’s frustrations at Wimbledon since he last won in 2012 are thinly disguised. “I feel I’m ready for it,” Federer said after his semifinal win. “I’ve played good matches here since my win here in 2012. I played great in ’14, ’15. [Then] ’16 was special. And ’13, because of injuries. But I played great in ’14 and ’15. I’m happy I’m up to that level again.”

    The statistics the men have assembled give Cilic a decided advantage in the power department. He’s hit twice as many aces as Federer (130-64), and clocked about 18 more winners per match, an advantage undermined if not eliminated by Federer’s near impeccable unforced-error count. He’s averaged fewer than 12 unforced per match, half of Cilic’s 23.6. That’s a startling statistic, given the bold, offensive nature of Federer’s game these days.

    But Cilic clearly has the tools to smother Federer, like he did in that US Open quarterfinal. But should Cilic stray even a little bit from the plot, Federer will be all over him. Both men have won around 82 percent of their first-serve points, but Federer has been noticeably better at defending his second serve, 63.8 percent to 58.

    The consensus is that this will be a high-quality, close match. Federer’s greatest advantage just might be his ever-increasing, instinctive ability to find the shots that give him an optimal chance at beating any kind of rival. A mechanical bull gets accustomed to the shape of many different kinds of men trying to stay on until the buzzer.