Wimbledon: Federer d. Raonic

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For a long time now, some smart people have been saying that if Roger Federer is going to win another major—an unprecedented 18th Grand Slam title—he’ll need some help in the form of upsets, walkovers, or withdrawals that take one or more of his Big Four peers out of the picture.

It has panned out that way at Wimbledon this year, and now the seven-time SW19 champion will play his ninth final against Novak Djokovic, without having had to contend with either his nemesis Rafael Nadal nor defending champ Andy Murray. He earned that right today with a crushing defeat of young Milos Raonic, who had already become the first Canadian man to contest a Wimbledon semifinal in, oh, a century, and was hoping to join compatriot Eugenie Bouchard in the weekend’s finals.

This match was barely an hour old when Federer broke Raonic’s massive serve for a second time, which is the same number of times that beast had been tamed in the entire tournament thus far. By that point, Federer already had the lead, and he would go on to close out Raonic, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.

It may have been unwise for Raonic to choose to serve to start the match, because this was his first major semifinal, and on Centre Court no less. Nothing can prepare you for that, and he must have known it. So let’s assume he elected to serve either to demonstrate his confidence or for the potential advantage of making the other guy always hold to stay level.

Whichever, or both, it didn’t work out the way he planned. Looking sluggish and disoriented, Raonic smacked a double fault at 30-all and then mangled an inside-out forehand response to Federer’s break-point return.

That was like manna from heaven for Federer, who then shrugged off a touch of nerves himself to consolidate the break. Federer had break points again in the fifth game, but this time Raonic found answers in a cross-court forehand and a surprise serve-and-volley attack that forced an error. He finished off the game with an unreturned serve and an ace, and now at least he was into the match.

That was the brunt of the action of the first set, which revealed some trends that spelled bad news for Raonic. Federer, keeping with a theme he established earlier in the tournament, attacked freely and often, frequently with a serve-and-volley strategy. Raonic had few answers to the probings, and demonstrated that it’s a lot easier to hit a rally ball into the court than to make a passing shot or service return when the other guy is charging forward.

On the offensive side of things, Raonic’s reluctance to take advantage of his serve, his height, and his power was manifested in his terrible attacking stats: He won just two points in six attempts in the forecourt. His poor conversion rate was less of a problem than the low number of attempts. Federer, by contrast, attacked nine times and won eight of those points.

Federer served for the first set at 5-4, and fell behind 15-30. The following point was emblematic: Federer served and rushed the net. He cut a nice backhand volley to Raonic’s forehand side. Raonic made a good run, but drilled the passing shot into the net. The No. 4 seed closed out the set when Raonic failed to put a second serve into play.

Thus, ESPN commentator John McEnroe was absolutely right when he suggested that, at worst, Federer could make the finals by winning two tiebreakers.

By the end of the second set, however, it was unclear if there would be any tiebreakers at all. As expected, the men marched in lockstep holding serve, pretty much working the same strategies and showing the same strengths and weaknesses as they had revealed in the first set. The big difference was that Raonic didn’t yield an early service break, and thus there would be marginally more pressure on Federer to hold (once again, Raonic served first in the set).

All that changed in the blink of an eye at 4-all. Raonic started the game with a double fault. He missed his next first serve, and popped in a tentative second at 98 M.P.H. It set up Federer for a down-the-line backhand winner. Raonic had a great chance to win the next point, but he muffed a smash and suddenly found himself facing three break points. He dismissed the first one, but once again failed to put a first serve into play at 30-40. His punishment was watching another pretty down-the-line backhand winner from Federer on the fourth stroke of the rally.

Federer served it out with ease, and had salted away his second set before the match was an hour and 10 minutes long.

By this time, those who were hoping for a tiebreaker shootout were grumbling and venting. Surely Raonic would serve his way into at least one, and then show what he can do, right? It was not to be. It was a wash-rinse-repeat set again, as the men went through the motions to 4-all, and then Federer once again came up with the key break.

This time, Federer won the first point, then battered Raonic with a forehand winner struck off a heavily telegraphed approach. During the 0-30 point, Federer hit a heavy slice to Raonic’s backhand, forcing the big 23-year-old to rumble forward. Raonic tried to answer with a heavily sliced backhand approach, but the ball never made it over the net cord. Raonic staved off the inevitable with an ace, but on the next point, his first serve let him down once again. Federer took his second serve, smacked it back, and Raonic hit an ugly forehand out.

Federer cruised through his match game, winning it on his first match point with an unreturned serve. Raonic never saw a break point in this one, and he showed Federer seven. It was, as one commentator put it, a “clinic.” But for Raonic, it was also a blueprint for the future. Watching this on tape will be painful, but it will yield a realistic vision of what he will need to do to challenge the top players.

Bring on Djokovic.

For complete Wimbledon coverage, including updated draws and reports from Steve Tignor, head to our tournament page.

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