MASON, OHIO—An all-Swiss semifinal match in Cincinnati began with the truth that nothing was going to take either Roger Federer or Stanislas Wawrinka by surprise. "I don’t need to see Stan play, really. He doesn’t need to see me play. We know each other very well," Federer said.
Too well, Wawrinka may think. He had lost 10 of his 11 to Federer, including eight straight. Seven of those were on hard courts at that, with Federer staking his claim to 18 of 19 sets. So Wawrinka might have felt it futile coming into this, but he hardly played like it, to the delight of a sellout crowd if not to his countryman, who went on to win 7-6 (4), 6-3. A few times along the way, Federer appeared irked that the win didn’t come easier.
Wawrinka served as if he had something to prove in the first set—and then he did just that. His service winner struck a cameraman’s headset, and the unseeded Swiss dealt an ace and an overhead smash to his superior to even the proceedings at 3-all. Wawrinka cracked his backhand to great effect, basically matching Federer’s own seemingly improved one-hander. The world No. 1’s ace saved a break point, one of two that Wawrinka earned but failed to capitalize on in the match. It’s notable that Federer had to frown upon just one break point in his past three matches, saving one against Alex Bogomolov, Jr., and not even granting one to Bernard Tomic or Mardy Fish.
Natalie Merchant’s "Kind and Generous" played on a changeover at 4-3 in the first set. That could very well be Federer’s tribute song to Wawrinka to date, but Stan didn’t feel so giving on this day. Instead, he dusted a nifty drop-shot that, while Federer glazed the net with a typically brilliant forehand in response, showed Wawrinka was heady and in tune. "Grin and bear it" has been Wawrinka’s mantra historically to his compatriot, but he reached 4-all on the back of big serving and 5-all on the strength of a (whiffed) second-serve ace and another to boot.
So Stan served better than Roger: 55 to 54 percent on first serves for the match, with an ace-to-double-fault count of 6 to 2 compared to Fed’s 5 and 5. It wasn’t enough. Wawrinka hardly moves the same and has fewer, lesser arrows in his quiver. Despite this, he continued riding his massive serve (clocking a 139 mph service winner) in recovering from 0-40 to force the opening-set tie break. In doing so, he saved three set points.
In that tie break, Wawrinka hit a net-cord-snapping shot that gave Federer a 6-3 lead. That came after a sterling point that saw both finishing at the net, Wawrinka the Olympic flag bearer for Switzerland looking over at the man in whose shadow he abides. (“He gets recognition, but sometimes in Switzerland we do have a hard time showing that,” Federer said on Friday.)
These two held serve through 7-6, 2-1, and before long, Federer had held at love with a second-serve ace of his own and a deft volley suffocated cross-court. All it took was a couple more holds and Stan slipping on this Center Court for Federer to find match point. And that’s what he does: Roger reduces other players to faked-out near ankle breaks. No one glides around nor disguises his shots quite like this one.
Now Federer faces down his nemesis Novak Djokovic in the final, the man he defeated here in the 2009 title round. The greatest player ever still owns a 15-12 head-to-head record on the Serb. This final—Cincinnati’s first in the Open era between the No. 1 and No. 2—will be different.