By Arnie Leshin
To each his own, and to Roger Federer, he saved his emotions until the Wimbledon men’s singles semifinals with rival Rafael Nadal was overFriday, and he emerged victorious, 7-6 (3), 1-6, 6-3, 6-4.
Then he lifted his racket in one hand and made a fist with the other. The No. 2 seed will turn 38 next month, and its easy to obsess over age at this stage, to shake your head at Federer’s ability to handle the pace and the pressure, but he found his own way by calmly concentrating on the task at hand and now focusing on Sunday’s championship versus top seeded Novak Djokovic, the 32-year-old from Serbia.
The opening set against 3rd seeded Nadal, who leads the series between them, 24-16, because of his advantage on clay, was tight. Whereas Federer has won six of their last seven matches, the only loss coming on red clay last month in the French Open semifinals, he relied here on the ball bouncing lower and took control of the set by winning the final five points from a 2-3 deficit and the 7-6 tiebreaker, 7-3.
While Federer remained calm, just taking care of business, the 33-year-old Nadal was angry. He had some words to float around after the set, and displayed his emotion when he served first in set two. Boom, boom, boom, he quickly took that game at love, broke Federer by stepping further back and just tearing into the rocket-like serve, and before you knew it, it was 6-1 Nadal, and he pumped his fist to the crowd.
No doubt Federer was stunned to lose the set this way, and apparently Nadal was taking charge. But without showing any emotion, without spending time with words, without looking over at his coaches in the stands, he fought right back, serving three aces, sending a remarkable backhand from one corner to another, and making good on first serves all but two times, and the turn of events brought him the third set 6-3.
No smiles, no waving to the crowd or his coaches, no fist-pumping, he strolled to his chair, toweled himself off, drank some liquids, and stepped back onto the court. At this point, the crowd was right into it, palms got sweaty in the stands, and Federer and Nadal never slowed down.
Both came up with strokes of genius under duress that sent fans leaping up from their seats. Nadal trying to force a fifth set and Federer wanting to wrap up the match now. This was a set that was mesmerizing, not because they defying time, but because they were defying each other.
After the ugly, unsettling passage of play in the second set, when Federer was mistiming his shots, and Nadal was making everything to claim 20 of the sets final 23 points, the third set belonged to Federer as he bounced back, and now had a chance to win for the third time in four matches at Wimbledon over Nadal.
But the Spaniard hurt himself with an early break of serve in the fourth set. Then Federer had to summoned the cool to shrug off Nadal’s fire and intermittent brilliance in the closing games that followed the early break. Serving at 3-5, Nadal saved two match points with excellent serves and held serve with a hanging drop volley winner and an ace.
Federer then served for the match, missing an overhead from deep in the court at 30-all to give Nadal a break point, which the Swiss star was able to fight off when Nadal missed a sliced backhand approach shot into the net.
But it wasn’t over yet as the two battled and the crowd roared. Nadal saved a third match point with a forehand winner to finish off a 24-stroke rally and then saved a final match point with a lunging open-stance backhand passing shot winner.
It was deuce, with the court in late afternoon now covered in shadows, and with shouts of “Roger” and “Rafa” coming from the stands. But this was Federer’s moment on Centre Court. He secured the final two points off his serve, and with Nadal’s last backhand sailing long, Federer finally pumped his arms and grinned, then walked forward to give his friendly rival a firm handshake and a few pats on the back.
Until then, he didn’t need to pump his arms, his fists or flash any smiles or grins, only needed to concentrate on the business at hand and save the rest for last.
Djokovic advanced earlier in the afternoon on Centre Court with a hard-fought 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, 6-1 victory over Roberto Bautista of Spain. Bautista had beaten Djokovic twice this year on hard courts on the regular ATP tour, and he won many more baseline duels Friday.
But in a best-of-five format, Djokovic’s staying power and ability to rise up on the biggest points were too much to overcome. Djokovic has won four Wimbledon singles titles. Federer has won a record eight and is the oldest man to reach the Wimbledon final since 39-year-old Ken Roswell lost to Jimmy Connors in 1974.
In these finals, Djokovic holds a 2-1 edge over Federer, having won in 2014 and 2015. In head-to-head, the Serbian leads 25-22. He is also almost eight years younger, but Federer is like a grand old wine, just gets better with age.