The comeback king: Roger Federer still has the capacity to surprise

LONDON -- There's a reason Roger Federer has won seven Wimbledon titles and, after a rousing and monumental comeback, finds himself in position to win an unprecedented eighth.

Federer has the fluent, fluid game, the cast-iron temperament and still, at the age of nearly 35, the capacity for surprise.

Down two sets to No. 9 seed Marin Cilic, Federer looked cooked in their Wednesday quarterfinal. He had to save three straight break points at a critical juncture of the third set and three do-or-die match points in the fourth.

And in the end, the No. 3-seeded Federer prevailed 6-7 (4), 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (9), 6-3 in one of the great victories of his career -- which is saying something.

"I was in so much trouble in the third, and again in the fourth," a still-breathless Federer said in his off-the-court BBC interview. "It was great fun. Obviously, for me, the dream continues.

"I played great at the end. Very, very pleased."

It was appropriate that this 3-hour, 18-minute epic was Federer's 307th Grand Slam singles match win, breaking a tie with Martina Navratilova for the all-time record.

Seven-time Grand Slam champion John McEnroe, who called the match for ESPN, was out of breath afterward, too.

"That was amazing," McEnroe said. "He had no business winning that match. Cilic was on the brink of victory.

"That goes down as one of the best [matches] I've seen. This is the greatest of the great, to hang around long enough to come back from that position."

It was the 10th career comeback for Federer after trailing two sets to love and only the third time he has been forced to save match points in a major.

Cilic, a streaky Croatian, is now a dubious 1-21 in matches against players ranked among the top three.

That one win, however, was against Federer. After going 0-for-5 in his career against Federer, Cilic stunned the Swiss champion with a virtually flawless, straight-sets performance in the semifinals of the 2014 US Open. It was the springboard to his only Grand Slam title.

On Wednesday, in another major meeting, it nearly happened again in the civilized space of Centre Court. Actor Stanley Tucci and soccer star David Beckham, along with other pro-Federer patrons, probably couldn't believe what they were seeing in the early going.

Federer has always been a player with a marvelous feel for finesse. But there have been occasions when power players -- most notably, Rafael Nadal, Juan Martin del Potro and Cilic -- have overwhelmed him near or at the end of Grand Slam events.

For two sets, anyway, that's how it went.

But after Federer wriggled out with the third set and lived dangerously when he served at 4-5 and 5-6, facing match points in the fourth, the two players went to a tiebreaker.

It was brilliant stuff, with Federer saving another match point and Cilic saving four set points before succumbing after two errant forehands.

Afterward, Federer called the tiebreaker "crazy."

The fifth set? It came down to an anticlimactic break of Cilic's serve in the eighth game on a wide forehand.

Federer actually hit more aces than Cilic (27 to 23) and saved seven of eight break points. In a match of highest quality, Cilic saved seven of nine break points.

With a single flourish, Federer equaled Jimmy Connors' record of 11 Wimbledon semifinals and his total of 84 match wins.

Federer, for the record, is the oldest man to reach the semis here since Ken Rosewall (39) did it 42 years ago.

Thus, the 17-time Grand Slam champion took advantage of an extremely Federer-friendly draw on his favorite court at his favorite venue.

Federer's last Grand Slam title came here four years ago. It's astonishing to think that he has a decent look at an 18th major singles title if he can beat No. 6 seed Milos Raonic, a four-set winner over Sam Querrey, in Friday's semifinals.

On two occasions -- the 2009 French Open and Wimbledon in 2012 -- Federer has gone on to win a Grand Slam after trailing 0-2 in a match. Could this be the third?

When Federer missed this year's French Open, it ended his record streak of 65 consecutive Grand Slam appearances. Knee surgery and back issues forced him to bypass Paris with the idea of resting and preparing for the grass-court season.

Federer played reasonably well in Germany, at Stuttgart and Halle, and came to Wimbledon in a decent frame of mind. Still, he didn't know what kind of shape his body was in. Gradually, he worked his way into the tournament -- and now he's two wins from what would be a massively popular (and unexpected) victory.

"The last three sets were really good," Federer said. "It's really encouraging to me that I'm improving as the matches go on. My legs were there, my back was there; mentally this is going to give me a hell of a boost.

"I'm ecstatic that I was able to come through somehow. Incredible match."