WIMBLEDON, England—He stepped up to the service notch that has come to look more like a threadbare carpet than the most hallowed piece of turf in tennis, and the applause cascaded down all around him, mixed with cries of encouragement and exhortations that had a hint of desperation and urgency—that's how badly so many of the spectators wanted him to win it.
Roger Federer, who hasn't won a Grand Slam event in over two years and who, some said, was no longer capable of maintaining the pace set by Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, was serving for the match against the top-ranked Serb.
Federer would not acknowledge the crowd nor milk the moment. He wouldn't even look up, and his facial expression gave away absolutely nothing. There had no time for the ovewrought now. He looked serious, almost to the point of seeming sour, treading that very fine line between pride and hubris. Imagine a thought bubble over his head; might have been thinking, "I don't need this, not yet. I'm not that old, not that over the hill, not that needful of being carried across the finish line on a wave of sentiment, like some broken down old piker. . ."
A hush fell over the Centre Court as he lined up to serve, head down and fully focused. It was a shot that had served him well, if never quite as obviously as in the blazing first set, in which he converted 75 percent of his first deliveries. Federer would fail to make a first serve until his last serve in this game, but it would turn out not to matter all that much, for the tug of victory by then was as inevitable as the surge of the tide. Some place in his brave and proud heart, Djokovic already knew that he was beaten. Was the defending champ aware that this was the six-time champion's crowd, the minions he earned with his history and impeccable conduct here for so many years? The six-time champion's time?
"To be honest, you know, I thought about this match, really," Djokovic would say when he contemplated those questions after a Federer service winner drove the final nail into the 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 win. "Obviously the last two days I was really focused on performing well today and trying to get a win. . . I mean, of course I do have a respect for Roger and everything he has done." He added a little later, "I do regret that I didn't play as well as I thought I would, and as well as I played maybe last couple matches. You know, life goes on. This is sport. I have to move on."
Djokovic may not have been thinking about the metaphysics of it all, but those factors certainly shaped the tone of the match and perhaps played a role in the outcome. It's one way to explain at least partly why the customary fire and passion we've come to expect from Djokovic seemed to drain out of his game by the end of the third set—usually a time when Djokovic takes a deep breath, rolls up his proverbial sleeves, and begins sledge-hammering those groundstrokes as he gets down to the really fun part of his job. Not today.
After the match, Djokovic also alluded to feeling "not so great" and having "a bad couple of days," but he would say no more about that. It certainly wasn't the best time to rain on Federer's parade, not when the floats and marching bands and drill teams had been lined up and waiting for so long.
This was the first meeting of these two men on grass, which had to plant a seed of caution if not outright doubt in the mind of Djokovic. Remember, it's not like Djokovic has been ripping through Federer in Grand Slam events with quite the same gusto that he brought to his clashes with the other member of the Big Three, Nadal. Djokovic had won their last Grand Slam meeting in straight sets (at the French Open), but Federer had two match points in the penultimate one (at the 2011 U.S. Open). Djokovic had good reason to wonder what lay in store when he awoke this morning.
The answer to that question crystalized early in the match, as Federer rode that deceptively effortless serve to a dazzling first set win in all of 24 minutes. If you stop to consider that in one of those Djokovic-Nadal dust-ups that have so dominated recent headlines, that's about the length of time consumed by, oh, three routine hold games. You could hardly blame Djokovic for allowing his equilibrium to get upset. To paraphrase Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, "Djoko, I have a funny feeling we're not in Paris anymore."
Federer on grass. The lethality is easily taken for granted.
Djokovic found his game in the second set, though, partly because he found his serve and laid into Federer expertly with those flat backhands and punishing forehands. But the rallies slowly habituated Federer to Djokovic's pace and weight of shot—this "first meeting" business cuts both ways—and by the middle of the third set he was acclimated and sufficiently adjusted. Federer finally broke Djokovic leading 5-4; the top seed mistimed a smash and banged the ball beyond the baseline to go down 0-40, and the Swiss converted his second set point with a surprise attack and a winning overhead.
Djokovic summed up his growing problem neatly later, saying, "I think what I did bad and wrong today was my first shot after the serve. You know, I missed a lot of those, I didn't move as fast as I was supposed to, and I didn't, you know, get on the ball. So, you know, if you play the first shot defensively, then you are on your back foot and you have very little chance to win the point."
That sudden, set-ending break was like jet fuel for Federer. As much as he relies on artistry and fluidity, his great allies in the fourth set were power and finality. His game was no longer a thing of beauty, the feature which everyone has celebrated for so long. It was all deadly weapon, a rose turned to steel, sharpened to a fine point and honed to a razor edge. Federer took command of that fourth set. He knocked off his first service game with a pair of service winners and broke immediately, forcing a rally to conclude with a Djokovic down-the-line error. The blade found its mark.
In the blink of an eye, it was 3-0 for Federer in the fourth, and obvious that a Djokovic fightback would have to be one of historic proportions. It wasn't just the nature of the competitor but the nature of the match that made it so. As Federer said later:
"I think the surface obviously does make our match quite different, to be quite honest. We barely had rallies in the first couple of sets, which was surprising for me to see, as well. 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."
He returned to the theme a little later, explaining: "We didn't have that many long rallies in the first couple of sets. It's always hard to find rhythm maybe, let's be honest. I mean, it's hard to fire bullets the whole time (on grass), so you try to also find some range. If he tees off first, it's hard to defend obviously. It is grass, after all. It's just not as easy to take that many balls out and come up with amazing shots time and time again. That's why I kept on attacking."
The roof on Centre Court was closed (it would be opened later for the second semifinal), providing the best indoor player in the world with something like indoor conditions. Most agree that the humidity and still air when the roof is closed makes the game faster. More explosive. A touch unpredictable.
Asked about that, Federer said, "I spoke about it with my coaches. I asked them. 'Is it better for me or not?' Nobody knew." He paused to smile. "I mean, now I guess it was. Who knows?"
Who knows, or cares. Federer himself was already thinking ahead to Sunday's final, and I don't mean he was visualizing the stroll on the red carpet to meet the Duke and Duchess of Kent. He doesn't plan to let the emotions unleashed by this win distract him from one last remaining task. "I'm aware that the tournament's not over yet," he told us. "I didn't break down crying and fell to my knees and thought the tournament is over and I achieved everything I ever wanted."
Everyone, including Federer laughed. The touch of sarcasm in his voice was unusual and ominous for the man he'll play on Sunday, Andy Murray. But as a light moment, it was right up there with the way an elastic smile transformed Federer's face after he won that final game today and stood by his chair, his pride satisfied, allowing himself to drink in the sentiment which he no longer needed to reject in order to complete the task he set himself. The guy is no piker.
For more on Federer and his history at Wimbledon, check out my new e-book, Roger Federer: the Man, the Matches, the Rivals. It's a tribute to Federer and a collection of observations gleaned from covering him and through the golden era of his career.