A lifetime of experience, a career laden with achievement and still Roger Federer’s chance slips through his fingers in a matter of minutes.
The mighty Swiss was made to look human in the space of a handful of games towards the end of his semi-final with Milos Raonic yesterday just when he seemed to be homing in on his 11th Wimbledon final. From a position of dominance, he became ordinary for a minute and the door to tomorrow’s final slammed shut in his face.
Raonic, he of the thundering serve and the new-found love of the net, muscled him out of the way to reach his first grand slam final 6-3, 6-7, 4-6, 7-5 6-3 and, by the end of it, the Canadian looked ready to take his place among the elite and compete for one of the major honours, while Federer looked tired, sore and spent.
The seven-time former champion had survived the initial barrage from Raonic, regrouped in the second set and then got progressively stronger as each game went by. And then, inexplicably, as was serving to stay in the fourth set and move it into a tiebreak, Federer served two double faults. He dropped his serve and with it the set and was broken again at the start of the fifth.
At that point, his Wimbledon dream disintegrated. Running across the court to chase yet another Raonic forehand, he slipped and landed face down on the court, thumping his left knee on the way down. That was the same knee that had required surgery after the Australian Open and, for a few seconds, he lay there with no sign of getting up. When finally he did stand and walk carefully back to his chair, he had the trainer take a look at the damage before proceeding. The trainer let him play but Federer was never the same again – broken a couple of points later, his chance of another tilt at the title was gone.
“I don’t know yet [what the injury is].” Federer said. “I don’t even want to know. I just felt not the same afterwards. Regardless, he played a great break-point to get the break.
“I had missed my chances by then already. Maybe I could have stuck around better if I would have saved breakpoints.
“Very disappointing half an hour there for me, getting broken at 6‑5, getting broken again at 2‑1, having the slip. Who knows what happens there. But it was a very disappointing end to the match for me.”
Until then, Federer had been turning back the tide of time and ripping the heart out of Raonic. The huge Canadian was a set to the good, he had John McEnroe advising him how to win these grass court matches – and McEnroe ought to know – and he believed he was ready to make his big breakthrough.
But Federer kept asking the question: are you sure? He returned the Raonic thunderbolt serve, he served with precision and he sliced and sliced with his backhand. Are you really, really sure you believe you can win this? And for two and a half sets, Raonic bit his lip and wondered. The tension had frozen his brain and all he could think to do was hit his serve even harder. But that was when Federer let him off the hook with that poor service game at the end of the fourth set.
“Something went wrong,” he said. “I don’t know. I can’t believe I served a double‑fault twice. Unexplainable for me really. Very sad about that and angry at myself because never should I allow him to get out of that set that easily.
“I mean, he deserved it. He earned it at the end. But I helped him so much to get back into that game. I would like to see a tiebreak because I was the better player for the set. Then, I know he’s great in breakers and all that, it was always going to be tough. But I would have liked to see him scramble more than that.”
The world No 3 was as sure as he could be that he would be back next year and, the defeat aside, he was quite pleased with what he has achieved in the past 11 days. His comeback from the knee surgery had been successful – until that fall – and the back problems that forced him to miss the French Open had passed. Losing hurt but it was not the end of the world.
“Actually, it’s very encouraging for the season, hopefully for the rest of my career,” he said.
“Not that I was worried it was going to end somehow, but I was insecure coming into Wimbledon, I must tell you.
“It’s been a great run for me here, I must say. I just hope with the slip I had in the fifth, I’m going to be fine tomorrow and beyond.”
But, by next year, Federer will be pushing 36. His body will be a little frailer, his legs will be a little slower. Those few games on Centre Court yesterday
may have cost him his last chance of winning an 18th grand slam title.