LONDON — Mikhail Youzhny, a 30-year-old Russian who recently earned his PhD in philosophy, acted more whimsical than philosophical on Wednesday at Wimbledon’s Centre Court. At times, he was downright comical, a 21st century Falstaff summoning humor to deal with the pain and suffering dealt by the right hand of Roger Federer.
About to be bumrushed out of the Championships by Federer, the deft Swiss master, Youzhny turned to the Royal Box, with Andre Agassi seated in the first row, and appealed for help. Down by two sets, on the verge of losing his first service game to lead off the third, Youzhny openly pleaded for a suggestion, a tip, a secret, a prayer, a love potion No. 9 . . . anything that might help him escape this Midsummer Afternoon’s Nightmare that Federer was weaving into his fading dream.
Alas, no words of wisdom, no hope. Agassi and others, including the legendary Rod Laver, could offer only shrugged shoulders, wry smiles, and eyebrows arched in sympathy. It was Falstaff who once noted, “I have a kind of alacrity in sinking,’’ and Youzhny was already well on his way to the bottom of the Thames.
“Just jokes,’’ said Federer, after completing the 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 shellacking that delivered him to Friday’s semifinal matchup with defending champion Novak Djokovic. “Mikhail is a great guy. He’s always a great fight out there. You could see it with his outbursts, trying to get some energy going and just getting pumped up a bit . . . it was pretty funny, him speaking to the Royal Box, I thought.’’
Minutes later in the match, which took all of 92 minutes (save for the requisite 30-minute rain delay), Youzhny looked to the gray sky and bellowed in Russian for five or six seconds after Federer pulled back to deuce while serving in the fourth game. Gone was the tiny bit of chance that Youzhny had of pulling even, 2-2, and gone was the minuscule hope that he would make SW19 the site of his first Grand Slam victory.
“A good matchup, I guess, for some reason,’’ said the humble Federer, accustomed to such outpatient surgerical eviscerations of opponents. “He is a good player and makes it hard, normally, for players. I had a tough one with him last year. I’m obviously excited about this result.’’
It was the 13th time Federer and Youzhny had met, and all 13 of them have ended the same way, with Youzhny playing the crushed tomato can to Federer’s velveteen hammer.
Djokovic is a different story. The equally smooth Serb is the defending champ here, and though he has beaten Federer in seven of their last eight meetings, the two have never met on grass. Their battle in Friday’s semis promises to be the cream of the Strawberries and Cream tournament.
“It is interesting that this is our first grass-court match,’’ noted Federer. “I’m just happy that I’m around further than I’ve been the last couple of years. It gives me confidence going into a big match against Novak.’’
Federer has won Wimbledon six times, accounting for nearly half of his 16 Grand Slam victories. After winning here every year, 2003-09 except ’08, he has gone bankrupt at the All England Club the last two years — not to his liking, even with more than $70 million salted away in career earnings.
“It is a challenge when you play Roger and Rafa [Nadal] or any of the top players,’’ said Djokovic. “Roger has been on top of the men’s game for so long. This is where he won six titles. You know, he definitely wants to prove himself and to everybody else that he can win it once again. Today, he won incredibly fast, in straight sets, so we’ll see. I’m playing well, I believe.’’
In fact, Djokovic had nearly as easy a time in routing Germany’s Florian Mayer, 6-4, 6-1, 6-4, on Court 1. Mayer is somewhat unorthodox, straying unpredictably from the baseline power game, but Djokovic made easy work of him after some minor recalculations in the first set.
“It took me a little bit of time to adjust to obviously the sun and the wind and everything that goes on,’’ said Djokovic. “There was a bit of rain delay, and obviously he’s a player who doesn’t give you much rhythm. 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.’’
Not true of Dr. Youzhny, who earned his PhD in December at the University of Moscow, diligent in his studies during time away from the tour the last six years. Federer broke him for a 2-0 lead in the first set and rolled to the 6-1 win. In the second set, Federer again broke him right away and then again in the seventh game. Then came the third set, with Youzhny seeking Royal comfort and imparting Russian wisdom to the clouds.
It was Youzhny’s first service game that set the tone. After Federer opened with a love game that took barely a minute, Youzhny lost serve in a game that lasted 18 points and just over 10 minutes. He aced the 15th point to gain the advantage, then promptly gave it away by dropping the next three points.
Alacrity. Sunk. Not even the Merry Wives of Windsor could save him.
“You feel that maybe it’s up to him to change things up a bit,’’ said Federer, noting the edge that comes with never having lost to an opponent. “You just do what usually works against him.’’