Milos Raonic had proved himself the leading member of the young players born in the 1990s who were threatening to upset the old order. He was the first to break into the top 10, the first and still the only one to reach a Masters final, and had lately reached his first Grand Slam quarter-final at the French Open. Now he had gone a step further and reached his first Major semi.
He is a 6ft 5in powerhouse who can rain down aces. He had hit no fewer than 147 at Wimbledon already, the fastest at 141mph, and he had also hit more forehand winners through the Championships, 67 of them, than the infamous Federer right arm.
Raonic had got fitter, faster, more mobile in the last year under the tuition of Ivan Ljubicic, had lost weight and broadened his game. And while Federer had been feted during the tournament for his enthusiasm in coming to the net, where he had won 113 points, this big 23-year-old from Canada had won 92 points at the net himself.
And lest anyone forget, Federer is one of the oldest men in the draw, a month short of his 33rd birthday: That is, nine years older than his opponent. He is playing in his 16th consecutive appearance Wimbledon and his 59th straight Grand Slam event. Oh, and he became a father of twins for the second time exactly two months ago.
Federer was rightly wary of what he faced on the fast grass. They had played three best-of-three Tour matches and every one of them had gone the full distance, but most pertinently, their only grass meeting in Halle in 2012 had been snatched, just, by Federer in a final-set tie-breaker. And there was no doubting Raonic was a more complete, more challenging player now.
And Raonic knew it: “I’ve played him I believe four times now. He’s gotten the better of me all four times. But I haven’t played him I think in more than a year. So I think I’m a different player. I’ve got in close with him in the past and I’ve found a lot of those things I can sort of pull away that give me a lot of belief that I can do this. There’s no point to talk about it. I’ve got to step up and do it.”
But weighed in the balance against the aspiring Raonic was no ordinary opponent.
Seven-time Wimbledon champion Federer was hoping to advance to his 25th final and ninth Wimbledon title match. And the bad news: Federer has never lost a Wimbledon semi-final in eight previous appearances.
The Swiss also happens to be the most successful grass-court player of the Open era, with the most titles and most match-wins on the green stuff.
But could he break the formidable hitting power of a confident Raonic?
Judging from the first few minutes of the match, yes he could. The Canadian serve, that had shredded his previous opponents, was picked up with remarkable speed by Federer, and perhaps the mere fact of seeing his serves come back made Raonic press too hard. He double faulted to bring up break point and then pushed a forehand wide to concede an immediate break.
Federer too double faulted once, but he proved very sharp at the net, winning a reflex volley that drew gasps from the crowd and sealed a 3-1 lead.
The Swiss kept up the attack in the fifth game, too, forcing two break points, but Raonic held him off. He could not convert what would be his only break point in the match at 3-4, leaving Federer to sail to a 6-4 first set in 34 minutes.
The pressure was immediately on the Canadian in the second set as well, opening with a love hold but mixing up double faults with 138 aces in his next to face another break point. This time he survived and held his own until 4-4, but Federer was proving not just quick on the return of serve but strong on his backhand, time and again opening the court with a silky slice cross-court to make a winner down the line.
And while the Canadian’s movement has improved since he first burst onto the scene, it is still nowhere near as good as many other top players: Federer’s footwork up the court and in defence caught out the tall Raonic too many times. One particularly impressive retrieval from well behind the baseline drew a fatal smash error from Raonic for break point, and Federer played a clinical backhand down the line to convert it.
Again in just 34 minutes, Federer finished off the set, 6-4.
The third set was a near replica of the second. Raonic dug himself out of a few holes created by low angled tests from Federer by pounding down serves that cranked up to 138 in the third game and to 139 in the fifth.
There was some temporary respite with a love hold in the seventh, but only very briefly: Federer held to love as well, and went for the jugular in the ninth to break with ease. He served out the set and match with near-perfect Swiss timing, in 33 minutes.
Federer has, with this win, reclaimed the No3 ranking for the first time in a year but his target is the big prize, a record eighth Wimbledon title and an 18th Grand Slam. But he will have his work cut out against old rival Novak Djokovic, who he meets for a remarkable 35th time.
Federer won their most recent contest on clay in the semi-finals of Monte-Carlo in April. But their last Grand Slam meeting came two years ago in the Wimbledon semi, with Federer edging it in four sets.
Federer talked of their imminent contest: “We always play good matches against each other.
“We’ve played each other a lot the past six months, and it’s gone back and forth a bit. Novak is a great champion; he’s used to these occasions. He’s won here before and knows how to get it done.
“I’ve played some great tennis under pressure [during the tournament]. I didn’t play so well last year and I expect a lot of myself here. In the second week I’ve really played better as the tournament went on. It wasn’t easy today but I got it done and I look forward to a great match with Novak.”
So it will be the “old guard”, two of the “big four” once again. There’s no doubt that the next generation is on the march but for now, they will have to wait their turn.
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BIOGRAPHY: Cesc Fabregas