Roger Federer has assumed many roles in his 17 years at Wimbledon.
At the end of last century, he was just a gifted youngster with a beautiful game but no idea of how to win when it mattered. A handful of years later in 2003, he grew into a champion with his first Wimbledon title and then matured into the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) we know today as he won five of the next six finals. Now with seven replica trophies sitting on his mantelpiece, he is the king of SW19.
But this year, as he glides through the crowd of celebrities, royals and sporting superstars, there is something different about him. This year, he is the gentleman assassin, the quiet and dignified destroyer of all in his path. Suave, sophisticated and fluent in several languages, he is welcome wherever he goes and yet beneath that immaculate “RF” branded jacket, he hides a stiletto with which to cut down every rival.
The attention has been focused on the other names this year. Can Andy Murray win a second title? Can Novak Djokovic bounce back from his French Open defeat? Will Rafael Nadal ever be able to win one of these major tournaments again? And all the while, Federer keeps on winning neatly, efficiently and cleanly. He leaves no trace, he leaves no clue but the obstacle in front of him is removed with a deadly flick of his racket.
He has not dropped a set on his way to the semi-finals and yesterday scythed through Gilles Simon 6-3, 7-5, 6-2 in just 95 minutes. As the day began, he had only faced two break points in four rounds – and saved them both – and had not been broken in 58 service games here. Add to that the 49 unbeaten service games he ran through to win the Halle tournament a couple of weeks ago and no one had come close to touching Federer’s serve in 116 games. And then Simon broke him in the second set. No need for panic, though, as Federer broke straight back and then ran away with the match.
“It’s been good so far,” he said impassively. “I felt like I played a very solid last year or so, especially on the grass I’ve done very well. I’m happy to keep it up here now. This is obviously now crunch time when you want to show if your game’s really up to par.”
The crunch will come against Andy Murray tomorrow, his 24th meeting with the Scot. He leads the head-to-head 12-11 and the last time they played each other, Federer absolutely crushed Murray 6-0, 6-1 at the ATP World Tour Finals last November. But, then again, when they last met on a grass court, Murray flattened Federer 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 to win Olympic gold. His form may be sparkling, his progress to the last four may have been serene but Federer is taking nothing for granted.
“The Olympics was, I guess, tougher to make the finals because it was best‑of‑three, not best‑of‑five getting to the finals,” Federer recalled. “Once there, with the epic I had against Del Potro [in the semi-finals], I was just a bit weathered from that match but very relieved that I was going to make a medal for Switzerland.
“Andy played as good of a final as you can play. I never really had a chance. Don’t remember even if I had breakpoints or chances in the second. Honestly, it all went by so quickly. He was just better. That was it. But there was nothing I could really do.
“Then I thought World Tour Finals, he came in tired. He had won three tournaments back‑to‑back‑to‑back. He left everything out there, making the World Tour Finals. I think when I played him, he was a bit cooked, to be honest. I played a great match, but it was not the Andy that usually comes up and shows up.”
The Federer who has eased through the past five rounds, has been the usual one who shows up: the Federer who plays with flair, panache and lethal precision. The backhand – allegedly his weakest shot – that many would pay cash money to own, the serve that is not huge but unerringly accurate and the forehand that has flummoxed the good and the great.
Against this, the boxing fan Murray will be the heavyweight – the nimble footwork, the muscular power, the lightning reflexes and quick hands and the eye for when to land the knock-out blow. As the pundits tried to pick holes in his straight-sets defeat of Vasek Pospisil yesterday, they concluded that Murray’s second serve was his weakness, his glass chin. Federer was having none of it.
“He’s beaten me before with that second serve,” the Swiss said. “Can’t be that bad. He’s beaten so many guys so many times. He covers it very well. He’s fast on his feet. He reads it well. One of the greatest return players we have in the game. He’s got a great first serve. Plus he won Queen’s. He’s in full flight right now.”
Whether Federer’s effortless flair can counter Murray’s counter-punching aggression, we will learn tomorrow.