For all its soaring majesty, Roger Federer’s has seemed a fragile art when it has come in recent contact with Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. There’s something to be said for the stark pathos of vulnerable beauty, but it doesn’t win tennis matches.
So when Federer walked on to Centre Court on Friday afternoon, under a roof that had compressed the tension, baking it, thickening it, everyone wanted to know if he could, on his beloved grass, defeat the World No. 1 and defending champion.
With a masterly show of courage and opportunism, both essential on grass, Federer outplayed Djokovic 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 to enter a record eighth Wimbledon final.
He will meet Andy Murray, who survived a burst of brilliance from Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, to win 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 and become the first Brit since Bunny Austin in 1938 to make it this far.
While the roof added to the big-match atmosphere — the court shimmered under its translucent skin and strut-mounted white lights — it wasn’t clear who would profit.
Without a wind to blow it off course, Federer’s genius is precisely directed. But slower conditions benefit Djokovic, a master of moving from defence to offence in an instant.
The first two sets featured staccato tennis, two men who appreciate a well-constructed point seeking the finality of a first strike. Federer won the first, breaking in the sixth game and later serving it out at 5-3: two aces, a service winner, and an exchange of forehands, his finding a more extreme angle so he had an open-court put-away.
Djokovic hit back. He did it with incredible stretch returns, blocking and hitting first serves back deep at Federer, so he received mid-court balls to wheel away on. He broke just once, but he now looked threatening every time a rally started.
The third set was crucial for Federer; he had to make the play and make it now, for Djokovic is near impossible to come back against, two sets to one down.
He had a tight first service game. The rallies were beginning to look familiar: Djokovic absorbing Federer’s steel-fisted, velvet-gloved punches and then catching him off guard with a blow from nowhere. The pressure that the Swiss master feels so often against Nadal, of having to be perfect every single time to win a point, was now present.
But somehow Federer shook it off; by the third game, he was hitting his forehand with greater authority and drawing errors from the Djokovic forehand. He had opportunities to break in the sixth game, where the level really lifted.
Djokovic saved one break-point with extreme defence in a 23-stroke rally. Federer created another with a 29-stroke rally that he ended with a gossamer backhand threaded down the line.
But the chances amounted to nothing, and it seemed as if Federer would pay, particularly when Djokovic had a prospect of breaking at 4-4.
Federer managed the desperate brilliance that comes from being pushed to the edge, when the mind is taken out of it. He made his move on the Djokovic serve, a forehand and a backhand, each struck cross-court with venomous splendour to gain an opening.
At 15-30, pressed to his left, Federer threw up a hopeful lob. Djokovic over-cooked his overhead. Although Djokovic wiped one break-point out with the old one-two, a wide serve and a forehand long-line, Federer took control of the next.
Having made it to the net on the back of position-winning tennis, he nearly gave Djokovic the point with an average backhand volley.
Perhaps he had caught him by surprise for instead of a pass he found a lob floating above his head. The smash was as graceful in its back-pedalling, show-jumping movement as it was decisive in its effect.
Centre Court added its collective roar to Federer’s. Both would repeat it 38 minutes later. Federer, after making the most of sloppy play from Djokovic early in the fourth set, stayed strong to close out his 15th win over his Serbian opponent in 27 matches.
Murray’s path to his first final seemed remarkably straightforward when he cruised through the first two sets, playing surprisingly direct tennis under sunny skies (the roof had opened).
Tsonga’s hot streak
But Tsonga, as he so often does, went on a hot streak, hitting dive-volleys, outrageous half-volleys, and pulverising ground-strokes to get himself back in the match.
Murray weathered it, however, to reach his first Wimbledon final. He broke into tears as he challenged a passing shot that had been called wide. Relief swept over him when the replay showed it had clipped the line.
Murray and Tsonga embraced at the net. Britain’s 74-year wait had ended; now for the 76-year wait: no British man has won here since Fred Perry in 1936.