There’s something of the tortured artist about Florian Mayer.
The 28-year-old German has certainly known anguish — not too long back, during a period he calls his darkest, he almost gave tennis up before finding himself. And there’s a definite artistic element to his game, especially if you like your art eccentric and rococo.
But although Mayer did everything within his wide range to “irritate” Novak Djokovic like he said he would try to, the World No.1 was too powerful, too athletic, too complete. Djokovic won 6-4, 6-1, 6-4 to reach his ninth straight Grand Slam semifinal and keep his appointment with Roger Federer.
Federer was masterly in his vanquishing of Mikhail Youzhny, a man he has now beaten 14 successive times.
Perhaps, as he conceded, the presence of Rod Laver, Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf, and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge inspired him; perhaps it’s just that he matches up well against Youzhny who allows him time to create: whatever the reason, Federer made sure his string of two successive quarterfinal losses here was broken.
While Youzhny might have colluded in Federer’s brilliance on Centre Court, Mayer forced Djokovic into it, in extremis, on No.1 Court.
The impossibly long-wound forehand that nearly had him off balance; the two-handed back hand slice, to which he added side-spin when at the net; that most off-putting of drop shots, which owed its deception to it beginning as a jumped, two-handed drive; the dive volleys that he arrived late on but managed to feather to the other side nevertheless.
Mayer threw every one of his oddball shots at Djokovic. Many of them worked in the first set, for Djokovic, as he later said, struggled to get his eye in: having played his last three matches indoors, he was blinking in the sunlight like the imprudent vampire who steps out without his dark glasses.
Mayer was the first to break, with two winners — a reflex inside-out forehand return that he had no business taking so early and a backhand struck flat down the line — and a penetrative backhand cross-court to provoke the error. Although he lost serve immediately, he earned himself three break points, at 0-40, with the first set even at 4-4.
Showing his class
Djokovic chose to show why he has, over the last year and a half, been the world’s best. Mayer worked his way to the net, but, perhaps unnerved by the Serb’s ability to run down balls, attempted to wrong-foot him with a soft volley to where he had been.
Djokovic was heading the other way, but he realigned himself so quickly his organs must have switched place.
He stretched to snap a backhand past Mayer into an opening ridiculously small.
Djokovic saved the other breakpoints with less spectacular play and held. Serving at 4-5,
Mayer salvaged one set-point with his skimming two-handed volley, but Djokovic pocketed the set with his next. Not surprisingly, Mayer had a mental let-down.
Coming close has that effect on those who haven’t been there before, and Djokovic played relentless tennis from the backcourt to take advantage. The set took 25 minutes.
In the third, Mayer got back to the level he had managed in the first set.
The difference in athleticism, however, was too wide to bridge: had the German served better, he might have made up for his movement, but playing Djokovic without a major weapon or comparable fitness and footwork is an invitation to step on the carousel he turns on by directing his opponents to the corners of the court; they step off knackered and beaten.
“Obviously he's a player who doesn't give you much rhythm,” said Djokovic. “You know, he changes his pace. He's a very tricky player to play against on grass.
He had some big wins here in Wimbledon, so I was a little bit more nervous at the start. But I managed to get the rhythm in the right moments.”
What of his 27th meeting with Federer, the first here and the first on grass?
“He uses the grass court better because of that slice. You know, he has a really smart game for this surface.
“But I improved playing on grass the last couple of years. I mean, I won the title here last year, got to another semifinal this year, so I'm feeling good about this surface, about myself on the court. I really have nothing to lose. I'm going to try to win.” For the record, Federer leads the head-to-head 14-12.