Friday, July 6, 2012
Just like old times for Roger Federer
By Greg Garber ESPN.com
WIMBLEDON, England -- Paul Annacone was one of the few people who saw this spectacular renaissance coming.
With the bookmakers and tennis pragmatists touting No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon semifinals, Annacone stoutly defended his current employer, one Roger Federer.
"You can always make it more complicated than it is," Federer's coach of two years said Thursday afternoon. "I thought he'd win before the tournament. If he plays well, he will win, in my opinion. Obviously, I'm biased."
At least on grass, Roger Federer still looks as though he is the best player in the world.
And, we now know, obviously correct.
On Friday, Federer -- playing as well as ever -- raised the roof over Centre Court. Reaching back to his vintage years at the All England Club, he produced a scintillating effort, defeating Djokovic 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3. It was a massively popular victory with the adoring crowd.
Federer, who turns 31 in August, was masterful, and Djokovic was oddly out of sorts. This looked like one of their early matches, when Federer dominated the young Serb.
Immediately afterward, in a BBC interview, Federer's composure on the court gave way to a swift string of words.
"Obviously, I'm ecstatic," he said, beaming. "I'm so happy. I was able to play some fantastic tennis today. The third set was obviously the key. I was able to step it up and maybe get a little lucky.
"Of course it feels great to be in the Wimbledon final."
As a result, there are all kinds of delicious history within Federer's reach. With a victory Sunday against Andy Murray, who beat Andy Murray-Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to advance to the final, Federer would:
• Win his record-tying seventh Wimbledon title, equaling Pete Sampras and William Renshaw, and increase his overall record to 17 major titles.
• Execute a back-to-the-future return to the No. 1 ranking, which would bring him even with Sampras for the most weeks (286) on top.
• Become the oldest man to win a Grand Slam singles title since Andre Agassi won the Australian Open nine years ago. The last 30-something man to reach the final here was Jimmy Connors some 28 years ago.
Djokovic, the defending champion, was thus denied a fifth consecutive berth in a Grand Slam final -- something only Federer and Rafael Nadal have achieved.
"No question about it," Djokovic said. "He was the better player. In the important moments, he was aggressive, hitting from both sides. Obviously, that's what you expect when you play against Roger at the final four of a Grand Slam. I knew that. I expected him to be at the top level, but I expected myself, as well.
"I needed to be very consistent in order to win this match," Djokovic said. "I wasn't. I lost to a great champion, somebody that has the most Grand Slams in the history of the sport. I do regret that I didn't play as well as I thought I would."
Federer, for his part, has never lost a Wimbledon semifinal. He's into his record eighth final here. Hard to believe that, just a week ago, he was down two sets to Julien Benneteau before rallying furiously to advance.
This was the 27th meeting between the players but the first on grass, something Federer said worked in his favor.
"We barely had rallies in the first couple of sets, which was surprising for me to see," Federer said. "We did a lot of first-strike tennis; a lot of service winners out there. That obviously changes momentum of the match. Doesn't make it maybe as physical. It's more explosive. Maybe a touch unpredictable.
"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."
A fast start against Djokovic was essential for the Swiss champion.
In all five of his Grand Slam victories over Djokovic, Federer won the first set. Considering that Federer had lost six of his past seven matches to the Serb -- and eight consecutive sets -- Federer's sense of urgency was even greater.
Playing with an almost causal air that belied the occasion, Federer ran through the matter-of-fact first set in 24 minutes, converting his only break point. Djokovic sent a wooden backhand into the net, and Federer stayed out front with some terrific service games, matching power with precise placement.
This has been Federer's pattern in big matches of late -- out fast only to fizzle, perhaps a product of his advancing age. A year ago here in the quarterfinals, he won the first two sets against Tsonga, then lost for the first time in his career after carving out a two-set lead. It happened again at last year's U.S. Open, when Federer blew a two-set lead to Djokovic in the semifinals.
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Thus, it was no surprise when Djokovic broke Federer's first service game of the second set. An ace ended another swift session (30 minutes), and it was all even.
Federer was all over Djokovic's serve in the third set, but -- despite some achingly long, tense rallies -- failed to capture break points in the second and sixth games. But, with Djokovic serving at 4-5, Federer finally found a way. Always moving forward, Federer pounded an overhead and, with a roar, the Centre Court crowd leaped up to its feet.
Compared with the third set, the fourth was curiously anticlimactic.
Federer fashioned an early break and was never seriously threatened. And, when Djokovic's forehand service return found the net, Federer simply raised his fist and looked toward his box, where Annacone stood, applauding -- just like the paying customers all around him.
When Djokovic was asked how he was feeling going into the match, he offered a cryptic response.
"Not so great, really," he said. "I had bad last couple days. Last five, six days, I wasn't feeling great. But I don't want to talk about it now."
It's Murray's first Wimbledon final, a fact of which Federer is keenly aware.
"I'm aware that the tournament's not over yet," Federer said. "I didn't break down crying and fall to my knees and think, 'The tournament is over, and I achieved everything I wanted.'
"I know it's been a great tournament, but we'll assess that once the tournament is over. Right now, I want to try to play the best possible final I can."