It looks like he may get that one last Slam after all.
In a surprising, decisive, and rousing victory, Roger Federer defeated Novak Djokovic 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 in the Wimbledon semifinals on Friday to advance to his record eighth championship match at the All England Club. Amazingly, Federer can also reclaim the No. 1 ranking if he were to triumph in Sunday’s final.
The match was the 11th meeting in a Slam between these two all-time greats, with Federer now holding a slim 6-5 advantage. Strangely enough the two have only met in one Slam final, the 2007 U.S. Open. And with Rafael Nadal, his Slam kryptonite, gone from the draw this may well be Federer’s year to reclaim his most treasured title.
It was a brilliant and clinical display put on by the six-time Wimbledon champion. Going into the match it was obvious that Federer had to serve well. And indeed he did. Notching 12 aces without a double fault and, even more importantly, by winning 75 percent of his second serves Federer never allowed Djokovic to get into a rhythm and intimidate with his returns, as is usually the case.
And though Federer didn’t play well in the forecourt, claiming only 12 of 24 net approaches, he was able to mitigate his mediocre volleying by playing nearly flawlessly from the backcourt; consider that Federer struck 30 winners with only nine unforced errors. This was by far the most startling aspect of the match, the fact that Federer stayed with Djokovic from the baseline, frequently winning extended rallies.
Often times a tennis match will come down to which combatant best neutralizes his own weakness. And this was in clear evidence Friday. Ever since Rafael Nadal started to dominate his rivalry with Federer by sending unwieldy high topspin shots to Federer’s backhand, it became common for all opponents to hammer that weaker side (which obviously still wasn’t enough for mere mortals to defeat Federer). And Federer has spent much of his career running around his backhand to unleash his ever-potent forehand drives.
But today Federer refused to allow his backhand to be a liability. And he also had a little luck on his side. With more rainy, dreary London weather around, the match was contested under the roof which ideally suited Federer’s game. With the ball bouncing lower than earlier in the tournament, Federer was able to hit through his backhand rather than slicing it most of the time. This allowed Federer to maintain aggression on his weaker side, not just using it defensively. The confidence Federer gained after ripping several backhand winners was palpable.
Conversely, Djokovic found himself struggling with his forehand. Several years ago the go-to strategy against Djokovic was to pound away at his forehand until it broke down, as his backhand has always been the more consistent and dangerous side. Yet starting at the end of 2010 Djokovic greatly improved his accuracy and consistency on the forehand swing and he’s been nearly unbeatable since.
But in Friday’s match Djokovic struggled mightily with the forehand and Federer took advantage. Hitting lower balls to Djokovic’s increasingly erratic forehand side, Federer forced his opponent into a less aggressive posture throughout the match. This was the most frustrated Djokovic has looked on court in some time, and he failed to counter Federer’s variety and strategic acumen.
Federer made the match easy on his legions of fans as well. Knowing his recent history with Djokovic, especially at last year’s U.S. Open semifinals where he couldn’t close out the victory with two match points on his serve, many were nervous in the latter stages of the fourth set, worried their hero would get tight. But there was to be no drama this time, with Federer winning his service games easily in the final set.
Federer was elated after the match, saying, “Obviously I’m ecstatic; I’m so happy,” Federer said. “I played a great match today.” And the soon-to-be 31-year-old acknowledged the benefits of playing under the roof. “I think overall the surface made the match play differently and potentially in my favor”, said the 16-time Slam champion.
While Federer is tremendously popular in London, he will nonetheless not be the crowd favorite on Sunday because Andy Murray finally – finally! – has reached the final of his nation’s Slam. Playing a nearly perfect match, Murray defeated Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 to advance to his fourth major final (he’s also reached the championship of the Australian Open twice and U.S. Open once).
Britain has been waiting for more than 75 years for one of their own to hoist a Slam trophy. And if Murray plays as well as he did on Friday there's a great chance that drought may end. Just as Federer played seamlessly against Djokovic, Murray was utterly brilliant against Tsonga. One need to look no further than a couple of stats: Murray counted 40 winners to only 12 unforced errors and won 64 percent of his second-serve points. Tsonga did not play a poor match; yes, he went through inconsistent patches as he is prone to, but this was all about Murray.
It is clear that Ivan Lendl has made a difference as Murray’s coach. This was apparent throughout the match – not just in the way Murray’s body language was positive throughout but also in the game plan and execution, of blending offense and defense beautifully. Often Murray can lapse back into an overly defensive stance and extend points needlessly. On this day he took the initiative and was richly rewarded for his efforts.
Before the tournament began it was all about Nadal and Djokovic. But now we’re on the verge of someone breaking that stranglehold for the first time since the 2010 Australian Open (Federer’s last Slam victory). Whatever transpires on Sunday, this much is true: the top four will be more closely bunched than ever.
The final should be a tactically fascinating match. Will Federer be able to sustain his superb serving against another strong returner? Will it be Murray or Federer to be the aggressor earlier in points, something both players look to do. If the match is indoors, which would favor Federer, can Murray use his superb reflexes and take the ball on the rise more frequently than he is accustomed? Will Murray try to match Federer’s finesse or will he go for more on his shots? It’s difficult to not imagine this match going the distance
But whatever the case, history will be made. Either Federer will win his 17th Slam and surpass Pete Sampras with the most weeks residing at the top of the rankings, or Murray will survive the overwhelming pressure he carries upon his shoulders and Britain will finally have a Slam champion.