The Many Universes Of Tennis
"ONE is the loneliest number that you'll ever dooooooooooo...."

The late-1960s lyric (from the song "One") can be interpreted on multiple levels in tennis terms.

Being number one is lonely in the best possible way -- no one else, at the end of two weeks of cutthroat competition, can lift a trophy or proclaim him(her)self the champion of a prestigious tournament.

One gets to say that -- 127 others don't. Imagine being the only person in a room of 128 people who stands out in a particular way. That's lonely.

(No joking: I once got mistakenly enrolled by my parents in a summer typing class in ninth grade... in a class of 30 to 35 girls. I sure felt lonely at first as the only boy in the room.)

On the other hand, having one major title or only one major final on a resume is also a lonely experience -- not the worst experience, to be sure (especially for those who won their only major final), but a nagging and irritating reality.

"Except for that one time..."

"S/he couldn't do it more than once..."

"When will s/he ever do it again?"

The one-hit wonder is better than none, in music and moviemaking and tennis, but it still carries that lingering association: A performer was great for only one moment in time, a burst of creativity that came together perfectly. 

Yes, the vast majority of human beings never even get one such moment of achievement and fame. As you read this, do know that it's an immense feat to reach the summit of accomplishment even once. 

Nevertheless, the reference to limitations -- of not being able to replicate a supreme feat -- is why one is the loneliest number for pejorative reasons, not just the feel-good primacy of being the top dog. 

It all depends on perspective... as is always the case.

For Roger Federer and Marin Cilic, this notion of repeating carries weight and significance heading into the 2017 Wimbledon final.

Federer -- once he got the taste of winning in his bloodstream on the occasion of his 2003 Wimbledon championship -- never really lost the scent. Sure, he went five years without winning majors, but he was consistently in the hunt. Even in his miserable 2013 season, he reached a major semifinal and quarterfinal. He -- like Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic -- has tasted the happy loneliness of number one a great many times, more than almost any other male tennis player who has ever lived.

Federer inhabits a universe far removed from the one in which Cilic resides.

And yet... 


With his win in Friday's first Wimbledon semifinal, Cilic -- whose career has often acquired highly frustrating turns -- has attained a new universe of his own. It is still dramatically different from Federer's (as is the case for any man outside the Big Three), but consider how different it now is from several formidable tennis players:

Tomas Berdych (who lost to Federer in Friday's second semifinal)

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga

David Ferrer

Kei Nishikori

Milos Raonic

Juan Martin del Potro

... and this doesn't even touch on past-era notables such as 1995 French Open champion Thomas Muster.

What do all seven men (Muster included) have in common? They have made only one major final.

Cilic climbed past them and others in the tennis history books.

It's counterintuitive, but it's real:

Federer's 18 majors and 11 Wimbledon finals tower above Cilic's major and Wimbledon totals, but Cilic has crossed a vast ocean of differentiation merely by making major final No. 2, separating himself from the "1" crowd.

Yes, going from 1 to 2 often represents traveling from one tennis universe to another. Anytime a player is able to replicate significant milestones, that player takes a big step forward.

Full stop: I held considerable doubts about Cilic's ability to handle pressure at this opportunity-laden Wimbledon, and to reinforce his 2014 U.S. Open title with a second major final. Cilic answered the call and silenced such doubts.

Yes, it is true that he didn't have to face Rafa in the quarterfinals, but remember that Stan Wawrinka -- on the three occasions when he won a major -- did not have to face the Big 4 in CONSECUTIVE matches. He did beat multiple Big 4 players to win majors, but he played one in the quarters, then received "respite" in the semis. That mental breather -- Berdych at the 2014 Australian Open, Tsonga at the 2015 French, Nishikori at the 2016 U.S. Open -- enabled Stan to gather himself for the finals. At last month's French Open, Wawrinka beat Murray in a 4:34 semifinal.

He had nothing left in the tank for Rafa.

We don't diminish Wawrinka's three majors because he had favorable semifinal paths. He made use of his situation and maxed out under the circumstances.

Cilic has done the same thing through six rounds of Wimbledon. His feat should in no way be diminished by the quality of the draw.

A weirdly ironic point to be made -- this essay contains plenty of non-linear statements -- is that Federer's path at Wimbledon has been very similar.

Federer felt pressure on Friday against Berdych. He cursed, he struggled on break points, he fell behind in several service games, he double faulted in a tiebreaker, he lost a break lead in the first set. This was not the smooth and easy progression he enjoyed against Berdych in Australia. Federer felt the pressure attached to having the rest of the Big 4 out of the tournament. Having a great draw confers a lot of heat on a tennis player -- both Cilic and Federer can discuss that in the locker room before they take Centre Court at 2 p.m. on Sunday.

This essay has discussed the many universes which exist in tennis... and it hasn't even referred to the universe occupied by players with no major finals to their names.

Nikolay Davydenko (man, HOW did he not make at least one major final?).

Nicolas Almagro, whose backhand was in the same class as Wawrinka's for a long time.

Grigor Dimitrov (tick, tick, tick...)

Richard Gasquet

Gael Monfils... and MANY others.

Federer's 29 major finals represent one universe, yes... but Cilic's 2 seem the same distance from that feat... AND from 1 major final... and 1 major final seems a Grand Canyon away from 0.

Tennis universes aren't linear mathematical equations, and moving through favorable draws isn't as easy as it looks on the surface.

Roger Federer and Marin Cilic arrive at this Wimbledon final from two different sides of the tracks, and yet they have so much in common, now that Cilic has done something Federer was used to in 2004: repeating significant accomplishments.