Yet such is the relationship between two of the finest exponents in this sport, the most-decorated Grand Slam champion and No1 record-holder, Roger Federer, and the newest name on a Grand Slam trophy in Australia this year, Stan Wawrinka.
It is almost a decade since they first locked horns on the tour, with Federer already top of the pile and Wawrinka, three years his junior, with one heck of a target to aim for. But after almost a decade, Wawrinka achieved what some thought may be impossible and became the top-ranked Swiss player, claiming the No3 ranking with his Melbourne crown.
I had to wait two and a half sets to get the first break. He’s hard to get by because we know each other’s patterns really well. We both played at a high level
It established a new order, for with Federer fighting through back problems, trials with a new racket, and unusual losses to low-ranked players during much of 2013, his own ranking had slipped to an 11-year low of No7.
They played one another for the first time since their switch in rankings in the final of Monte Carlo, where Federer confirmed they would still eat dinner together the night before and practise together ahead of the match.
Wawrinka won, just the second of his victories in 14 previous matches, and the other had come on the Monaco clay as well. But his record on grass was perhaps his weakest. This was, in fact, the first time Wawrinka had reached the quarters at Wimbledon, and in Federer, he faced the man with all the Open era grass records: most number of grass titles, most grass match-wins and, should Federer win this match, in second place for most Wimbledon match wins.
Wawrinka knew the scale of the task, as he explained before the match: “We practise so many times on grass. I know that I’m playing my best level. It going to depend a little bit on me, the way I’m going to play, the way I’m going to be aggressive on the court. I know that if I can do a good match, I’m going to have some chance.”
For yes, once again, they also practised together here.
And Wawrinka was true to his word, starting aggressively to break Federer for the first time in the tournament and claim the first set in half-an-hour, with 10 winners to just four errors. Mind you, Federer had only made two errors but such was the pace and power of Wawrinka’s first-strike tennis that he could not make enough in-roads of his own.
The second set became a quite exhilarating spectacle as both went for their shots, attacked the net, and mixing in some glorious baseline rallies of ‘who blinks first’ speed. Many of these put the powerhouse backhand of Wawrinka in direct opposition to Federer’s more graceful but sometimes less penetrating one-hander.
Today, however, Federer’s backhand withstood the pressure better than usual—he ended the match with a higher percentage of points won on that wing than Wawrinka did—and when it came to serving and net work, Federer was beginning to soar. He dropped only two points on his first serve, and made 11 winners from 13 volleys and smashes.
But neither yielded a break point and so it had to be a tie-break, and they edged point-by-point to 6-5 in Federer’s favour. Bold to the last, he serve-and-volleyed off a second serve for the set and the Centre Court erupted.
It had been high-quality tennis, with a combined error rate of just five between them, but there had been a distinct switch in momentum. Now Federer looked more in control of things, though Wawrinka saved two break points in the third game and followed it with a love hold.
But come the seventh game, Federer fired a glorious flat forehand past Wawrinka and onto the baseline to bring up more break points, and another forehand winner finished the job. Federer held to love for 5-3 and serve-and-smashed his way to the 6-4 set. Wawrinka had hit 13 winners in the set, but his opponent’s 11 were made all the more devastating by just one Federer error.
Now both men went off court for a ‘comfort break’, but Wawrinka lingered. Federer suggested afterwards that his friend was having a couple of physical problems—though Wawrinka would neither confirm nor deny that was the case, though he did admit he had begun to feel the effects of playing matches on three consecutive days.
The 32-year-old, though, looked full of running—and while Wawrinka fired off some quite breathtaking shots from the baseline, and won a good share of the several exquisite sliced backhand exchanges, Federer’s defence, married to 12 net winners in the set, ensured a break in the third game, an advantage that he held to the bitter end.
Wawrinka had one last hurrah, earning his only break point in three sets and forcing six deuces. It was a tense game, but in appropriate style for this attacking, entertaining match, Federer signed off with a serve-and-smash flourish, 6-4.
As has become the norm, he took a standing ovation, but admitted afterwards:
“It’s tough [playing Stan]. I must say he played a great first two sets. He struggled with his fitness after that. He was hitting the ball too cleanly for me to do anything. I had to wait two and a half sets to get the first break. He’s hard to get by because we know each other’s patterns really well. We both played at a high level.”
And he later reflected on the friendship: “I was thinking about it midway through the match actually, like, Oh, I’m playing Stan kind of thing. It hit me midway through the second set. You need some energy to push yourself. You don’t necessarily want to beat him, but you want to win the match. So that’s the odd part. It plays its role during the match.
“I still felt I was able to focus well and play as good as Stan allowed me to play, because he was playing really well right out of the gates. He came out and was crushing the ball, forehand and backhand and even serve, so it was very difficult for me.
“I’m happy that throughout the matches we’ve played against each other I didn’t have a huge problem playing against him, even though it is unusual playing a friend and unusual playing especially a compatriot.”
But to business. The win takes Federer to his 35th Grand Slam semi-final, keeping alive his hopes for a record eighth Wimbledon crown. Should he reach the final, he will also reverse the order of things in Swiss tennis by moving back to No3 in the rankings.
To do that, though, he will have to take on No8 seed, Milos Raonic, who he has met and beaten four times before. But the 23-year-old Canadian has been going from strength to strength, reaching his first Grand Slam quarter-final at Roland Garros and now his first Major semi-final
Raonic beat the youngest man in the draw, 19-year-old star-in-waiting, Nick Kyrgios, 6-7, 6-2, 6-4, 7-6, firing down 39 aces in the process.
So fascinating semi-finals await that both throw a member of the “big four” and former Wimbledon champion against one of the two 23-year-olds to break into the top 10 this summer: Djokovic against Dimitrov, Federer against Raonic.
Will it be a changing of the guard, or the old familiar faces? Friday will provide the answer.
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BIOGRAPHY: Cesc Fabregas