LONDON — The new kids on the block, eyes sparkling and rackets polished, scampered on to Centre Court at Wimbledon Friday and summarily had their blocks knocked off. The changing of the guard among the best men’s tennis players in the world will have to wait another day, or at least another tournament or two, because for now the old reliable like Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic will be the ones to divvy up the grass-stained spoils of the AELTC.
Djokovic had a tougher test than Federer, but he proved again that he is the top returner among the alpha big dogs, disposing of champion-in-waiting Grigor Dimitrov, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (7-2), 7-6 (9-7), in the first semifinal. Dimitrov went so far as to hold three set points in the fourth-set tiebreaker, 6-3, only to have Djokovic dramatically dash his hopes and dreams by snatching away six of the next seven break points for a 9-7 win.
Federer, the Velveteen Strangler of the Swiss Alps, followed up with one of his classic AELTC contract hits, coolly and systematically extinguishing Canadian flamethrower Milos Raonic, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4, in a match that took a mere 101 minutes. The seven-time Wimbledon champ could not have been more efficient, refusing to wither under a torrent of Raonic first serves, one as high as 139 miles per hour, firing his shots as if he were a robotic character from a James Bond 007 movie. In the end, it was yet another classic Federer show of panache and guile overcoming brute force.
Federer and Djokovic will meet in the final Sunday (8 a.m) with Federer looking to become the first to win eight men’s singles titles. He is in a three-way tie atop the all-time leaderboard with former American star Pete Sampras and 19th-century British legend William Renshaw.
If he were to win, Federer, 32, would become the oldest man in the modern era to cop the Wimbledon crown.
“Is that a possibility?’’ said a smiling Federer, who has more than $81 million in career winnings. “That’s not so important to me. I would [have known] if it was important to me . . . but it’s not.’’
Djokovic, the No. 1 seed, split his first two sets with Dimitrov, who was playing in his first Grand Slam semifinal. They battled evenly through the third set on the warm (mid-80s) afternoon, each of them repeatedly slipping, sometimes falling, as they tracked balls around the hallowed yard. Following the fourth game of the set, tired of the constant balancing act, Djokovic quickly pulled on new shoes and socks, hoping to find more secure footing. The 10th game of the set ended, a Dimitrov hold, with both players face down near the net, each felled by the slippery service.
Neither Federer nor Raonic, the 6-foot-5-inch Canadian, were the victims of unsure footing. Both remained tight to the baseline throughout most of their match, a slightly greater surprise in Federer’s case because his game typically centers more around movement. Yet he moved enough, picking his spots, and often scored with his trademark one-handed backhand. Raonic, per usual, was focused on winning on his serve, but there was no blasting Federer out of SW19.
In the early match, Djokovic clipped the third set in the tiebreaker and did so quickly, 7-2, Dimitrov twice failing on serve, including once on a double fault to drop to 2-5. Djokovic followed by ending it, including the winner on a serve Dimitrov could not return.
The day’s most remarkable wrinkle came in the third game of the fourth set between Dimitrov and Djokovic, with Dimitrov on serve. He served not one, not two, but three double faults before losing the game at love when he fired a forehand long from the baseline.
“To do that in a Grand Slam . . . ’’ mused a bewildered BBC commentator Tim Henman, “. . . amazing.’’
Obviously perturbed with himself, Dimitrov nonetheless broke right back to level it at 2-2. Dimitrov, no slouch in the aim-and-fire department, then clinched the fifth game, 3-2, with an ace at 136 m.p.h. If Dimitrov and Raonic do represent a new guard, it is one with a lot of heat.
Once in the tiebreaker, Dimitrov was poised to force the fifth set when he rushed the net and drove in an overhead backhand winner to take the 6-3 lead. Just one point away, with three set points in hand. But Djokovic promptly won the next five points, the fourth of those on another Dimitrov double fault, and ultimately closed out the match, 9-7, when he watched his final shot, a forehander, catch the net and roll over out of Dimitrov’s reach.
“I’m going to lie if I say I don’t think about it now,’’ said Dimitrov, focusing on his lost chance at forcing a fifth set. “I’m sure tonight I won’t get an hour of sleep because of that.’’
Raonic’s disappointment was of a different texture. He left here knowing that he didn’t show his best stuff in the biggest moment of his career. The same was true of Dimitrov, of course, but the Bulgarian star could take more solace in a beefier scoring summary.
“I’m quite disappointed in the level I was able to put out,’’ said Raonic, who grew up in southern Ontario and now lives in Monte Carlo. “I know I can do much better. I wasn’t expecting, by any means, to play my best — but I was expecting much better from myself.’’
For roughly half his life, Federer has gone around the world, leaving behind a trail of mortals saying the same after playing him.
Raonic’s game is still in development, and he still has a way to go to reach even Dimitrov’s proficiency. Against Federer, he couldn’t come close.
Now the Swiss master has a chance to be crowned king of the grass.
“You’ve got to love the game,’’ he said, reflecting on his sublime career. “Because if you don’t love it, then it’s just going to be too hard. I think that’s kept me going quite easy, actually, because I know why I’m playing tennis. Deep down, that’s really important.’’