Roger Federer hits a forehand return during his semifinal match against Novak Djokovic.
© Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com
WIMBLEDON, England -- Perhaps any victory by six-time champion Roger Federer should never be unexpected, but the way he handled No. 1 Novak Djokovic in his 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4 victory over the Serbian in the semifinals of Wimbledon was certainly a special one in his star-studded career.
He came into the match having lost six of his last seven matches to Djokovic, including a three-set beat down at Roland Garros last month and a heartbreaking five-set loss at the 2011 US Open, when he held two match points. But this time around, he was playing on a surface -- grass -- which favors his rapid-fire style. This time, he would not have to play countless 25-ball-plus rallies from the baseline. This time, he would recall who had owned Centre Court so many times in the past and who should be judged as an interloper.
"I wasn't nervous at all today before the match," the 30-year-old said. "I was almost a bit surprised I wasn't more nervous. But, then again, I think that's good sometimes. That means I'm in a good place mentally. Of course, there's a lot on the line for me. I'm not denying that. I have a lot of pressure, as well. I'm looking forward to that. That's what I work hard for. I've worked extremely hard since I lost that match point[s] against Novak last year at the US Open. My run has been extremely good. Now I have a chance at world No. 1, at the title again all at once."
Federer's prize for entering his eighth Wimbledon final is a match-up against the best British player in 76 years and the man who hopes to become the first man from the Isles since Fred Perry in 1936 to raise the big trophy. No pressure there.
Murray was just as impressive as Federer was on Friday, stopping the hard-charging Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5. While he has yet to win a major, few players had dealt with the pressure of playing at home better than Murray, who seems to invite big challenges. But whether he can stand up to the immense weight of winning a major with millions of eyeballs glued to every one of his trick shots remains to be seen.
Overall, it was brilliant match from Federer, even though Djokovic clearly wasn't at his best late in the match. He served as well as he has all year, consistently hitting the lines and keeping the Serbian guessing. He won nearly 74 percent of his service points, which was clearly critical, as it allowed him to take some risks in the Serbian's service games.
He broke Djokovic to 4-2 in the first set with a low, backhand cross-court pass, and after Djokovic stormed back to take the second set, he did not waver in the third. Down 2-3, he fought off two break points in athletic rallies, and then with Djokovic serving at 4-5, the Serb erred on an easy overhead to give Federer two set points. Djokovic saved the first with a forehand winner, but on the second one, Federer stood tall and won an end-to-end, 20-stroke rally with an overhead of his own.
Unlike at the last two US Opens, when Djokovic came back from the depths against Federer, he deflated. He was broken in his opening service game, and then Federer zoomed away.
"In the start of the fourth set, I dropped in the energy level," Djokovic said. "I played really a couple of sloppy games, very slow, with no pace, very low percentage of first serves. When you don't have free points from the first serve, it's very difficult to kind of get in the rhythm and the control of the match when you have an opponent as Federer. I needed to be very consistent in order to win this match; I wasn't. I had ups and downs throughout the match. Unfortunately, the one that lasted for, what, 15, 20 minutes, end of the third, beginning of the fourth, cost me the win today."
For Federer, the key to the victory was not just based on hard work and continuing self-belief, but the slick surface. The Swiss is still very quick and can crush the ball off his forehand side, but long, grinding rallies against Djokovic and his nemesis, Rafael Nadal, are not the right formula to victory. His coach, American Paul Annacone, encouraged him to play first-strike tennis, and he did.
"It's more explosive," he said. "Maybe a touch unpredictable. Overall, the surface made the match play differently and potentially in my favor. I was able to be very aggressive, particularly once I did get into the third set, where I thought we both played our very best. Now looking back, that was obviously the key to the match."
Federer admittedly has a lot on his plate in the Wimbledon final. He hasn’t won a major since the 2010 Australian Open and wants to prove that he still very relevant. He also wants to tie his idol, American Pete Sampras, with seven Wimbledon titles and also tie him with most weeks at No. 1 at 286 weeks.
"Everybody knows what a hero he is to me and how much I admire what he's been able to achieve in tennis," Federer said of Sampras. "I don't think he ever lost a Grand Slam final here at Wimbledon. He won seven out of seven, which is just incredible, particularly in the times he played against all these big servers, when things were a bit more unpredictable. So I'm very proud to have a shot of equaling Pete. But right now the focus is obviously resting and preparing for the next match."
That next match will be against Murray and, of course, most of Britain. The two have already played in two major finals -- at the 2008 US Open and 2010 Australian Open -- both wins for the more experienced Swiss in straight sets. But Murray is 8-7 lifetime against Federer, even though the Swiss won the only match they have played this season at Dubai.
They have never played on grass, and while Federer is incredibly popular at Wimbledon and appeared to have had 90 percent of the crowd on his side against Djokovic, he won't against the Scot. Word has it that final-round tickets on the open market are already going for $46,000, and most of the seats wont be purchased just to watch Federer paint another masterpiece. If any player is up slamming the door on national hopes in the cathedral of tennis, it's the cool and savvy Federer.
"I'd love to play Murray," Federer said. "I always say in whatever country I am in I like to play the local hero, and Andy is exactly that here at Wimbledon... It's a big match for me, and I hope I can keep my nerves. I'm sure I can. Then hopefully win the match."