Roger Federer’s spoof Twitter feed couldn’t resist a mild swipe at his fallen rivals as the History Man metaphorically picked his way through the bodies of the injured for yet another Centre Court engagement. “Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t mean to sound rude,” it said, “but the Big 4 has become the Very Big 1.”
Rafa Nadal, star of The Battle of Wounded Knee – out. Andy Murray of My Left Hip fame – out. Novak Djokovic – complaining of a sore elbow and out, too. But the Mighty Fed is still going strong and last night he became the second oldest man in the open era of tennis to reach the Wimbledon final.
Federer is 35. He’s got a bit to go to become the oldest – the Australian Ken Rosewall was 39 when he faced Jimmy Connors in 1974. But Rosewall – at that time the greatest player never to have won Wimbledon – was soundly thrashed by the 21-year-old Jimbo. Federer tends to win his finals and tomorrow will be bidding for an eighth All England Club title. That’ll be another record – and more history.
Rosewall and another great Aussie, Rod Laver, were in the Royal Box to see him overcome Tomas Berdych. But although the win came in straight sets – 7-6 (7-4), 7-6 (7-4), 6-4 – it was Federer’s hardest match of the tournament, where incidentally, he’s never quite managed to drop a set. “It was the toughest, it was close,” he said afterwards.
“It makes me really happy, marking history here at Wimbledon. I love this tournament – all my dreams came true here. To have another chance to go for number eight now, be kind of so close now, is a great feeling.”
The Big Four were the big question from the start of this Wimbledon whenever a player came to talk, post-match. Why had this gilded quartet dominated Wimbledon? How come no-one else had won since 2002? None of the answers went much beyond “They’re the best – that’s it.” But surprisingly it’s come down to one man to keep the tyranny going.
Last night’s match completed the first pair of slam semi-finals contested by players outwith the top four rankings since 2003. Ah, but rankings are rankings. The Mighty Fed is the Mighty Fed. Earlier in the day Sam Querrey had smiled when he was unhappy while Marin Cilic – the eventual winner – scowled when he was elated. The Centre Court, though, knew where they were with Federer and his inside-out crosscourt forehand and general gorgeousness.
He had a couple of opportunities before, in the fifth game, securing the first break on the Berdych serve. By then the Czech must have guessed he was in for a tough time, for when he managed to push Federer into the corners, the Swiss would not just retrieve but regain the initiative with some delicious topspin.
Federer consolidated by winning his own service game to love – two aces, a sumptuous stop-volley and a less than glistening forehand which still counted. Indeed, when Federer did something mortal, such as failed to win the points with successive forehands, the crowd didn’t know how to react. So they came up with a kind of gloomy gasp, as if Prince Andrew, who was in attendance, had just broken wind.
So imagine how they responded when the great man served two double faults to allow Berdych to break back – only the fourth time Federer been broken all tournament? Berdych was playing doggedly but in the tie-break more than that would be required of him. The key point was his horrible miss of an invitingly high return.
This wasn’t quite Federer at his silky-smooth best. He was still contriving some painterly play but there were collector’s-item clangers as well. And then would come the shot of the match thus far, a forehand on the run when Berdych must have been convinced he’d put the point snugly to bed.
Berdych was solid when spectacular would be needed. He couldn’t hang around waiting for more mildly astonishing misfires. Then, by finding the baseline smartly three times in a row, he got to break-point, but Federer rescued the situation with a flourish.
Even he can’t be vintage every time and his serve was getting him out of a few holes. Berdych was still required to produce career-high tennis, though, because intermittent genius from Federer looked like it might be enough. In a tense, tough second set Berdych matched the heavily-garlanded opponent but when it got to the tie-break Federer had his fans gasping – in a good way this time – with four flashing cross-court forehands.
“I played good in the breakers,” Federer said. “Or at least, if my opponent didn’t play well, I was able to close them out. I never played with any sense of panic, which is so important when it gets to crunch-time. I’m happy I won all these big points.”
Berdych thought he played a “really good match”. He did, but just happened to be up against the Mighty Fed. “This guy doesn’t seem to be getting any older, or slowing down at all,” he sighed. “If you look at the other guys who’re 35 or 36, you can clearly see that their age and the years on tour are affecting them. But not him.”
Federer expects Cilic to be another tough opponent. “I’m unbelievably excited,” he added, “and I hope I can play one more good match.”