WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND— “I was thinking about it midway through the match, actually,” Roger Federer said. “I was like, ‘Oh, I’m playing Stan’ kind of thing. It hit me midway through the second set.”
Federer was thinking about Stan Wawrinka, of course, his friend and Swiss Davis Cup teammate, as well as the man he would ultimately beat today in their Wimbledon quarterfinal, 3-6, 7-6 (5), 6-4, 6-4.
“It goes in phases,” Federer said, describing what it's like to play a friend in such an important match. “You need some energy to push yourself. You want to win the match. You don’t necessarily want to beat him, but you want to win the match. So that’s the odd part. It plays its role during the match.”
Novak Djokovic described a similar feeling a couple of days ago, and admitted that at times on court he questioned whether he should try to hit a certain shot when he’s facing a friend. It’s a phenomenon that has had its effects on the men’s game in recent years, mostly to the benefit of the top players. Federer, Djokovic, and Nadal have toweringly one-sided records against their countrymen.
Federer was 13-2 against Wawrinka coming into their match today, but he had lost their last meeting, in Monte Carlo, in April. Wawrinka seemed to still be riding the high from that win in the first set. He broke Federer at 2-1 with two bomb backhand winners, and finished it 6-3 with a bullet forehand, his 10th winner of the set. It looked like Wawrinka, who was pumping himself up after every good shot, had more than enough mental energy to push back against his friend.
“He really came out of the blocks unbelievably strong,” Federer said.
But was Wawrinka physically ready to go all the way? He saw the trainer at the start of the third set, and he admitted to having a problem afterward, though he wouldn’t reveal the specifics.
“It was tough to play three days in a row,” said Wawrinka, who had matches postponed because of the rain here, “especially when you played the third against Roger. Cost me a lot of energy at the beginning of the match to play that level....The second set was really, really important. I did a few mistakes in the tiebreak. It’s tough to play him. He was serving really well. Was tough to read his serve.”
Not for the first time at this event, we saw a match determined by the razor-thin margin of a tiebreaker. Two shots made the difference here. When Federer and Wawrinka changed sides at 3-3, it seemed that Stan had the momentum. He had been down 1-3, but Federer had shanked an easy forehand, and Stan had followed with an ace. At 3-3, he moved forward for mid-court forehand. Maybe it was adrenalin, maybe it was nerves, maybe it was his injury, maybe it was just a bad swing, but he sent it well over the baseline. Federer had the mini-break.
A few minutes later, Federer was serving at 6-5. The crowd cheered as he stepped to the line; one of those decisive, someone-must-win moments on grass had arrived. Federer, usually such a clutch server at these times, missed his first one. On the second, he surprised Wawrinka by following it to net and knocking off a high forehand volley for the set. The match was technically tied at one-set all, but in reality Federer, with that surprise sprint forward, had sprinted into the lead. Full flight awaited.
For the better part of the last two sets, Federer danced across the grass. He was controlling the rallies now, running around to hit his forehand deep into Stan’s backhand corner, and running down Wawrinka’s ground strokes, which had lost some of their pop.
“He wasn’t like cranking his serve as much anymore,” Federer said of Stan, “he wasn’t hitting as hard and moving as quick as he was in the first couple.”
It seemed that Federer could have danced all night, except that at some point he had to try to serve out the final set, something that has become an adventure for him. It nearly brought him crashing to earth again. Wawrinka reached break point, and Federer squandered four match points, including one with a horribly-chosen drop shot that landed in the net. Federer tried the serve-and-volley surprise again; it worked once, but not a second time. Finally Federer closed it out with an overhead.
“I was calm,” Federer said. “I was nervous, too, that he would get back in the match. Then you don’t know if all of a sudden the adrenaline gets him back into the match entirely.”
Federer’s stat-line was clean—46 winners, 14 errors, 10 aces, 32 of 45 at net, and no service breaks surrendered over the final three and a half sets. He also negotiated his way past an injured player, never an easy psychological proposition.
“Once he did have a letdown physically,” Federer said, “I was able to capitalize on that, which was important today.”
You can only do so much for a friend, after all.
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