Wimbledon 2016: Power and the glory carry Raonic past Federer into first final
Seven-time Wimbledon champion Roger Federer loses in five sets to sixth seed Milos Raonic in semi-finals
Roger Federer may be, in the eyes of many, one of the greatest players to have donned the whites of Wimbledon.
And while the style with which he glides around the turf of the All England Club has echoes of days past—when net skills were as vital as baseline stroke-making, a one-handed backhand was the norm, and attack rather than counter-punch was the order of the day—it is his achievements here that have reinforced that ‘greatest’ moniker.
He has more Major singles titles, 17, than any other man, more weeks at No1, 302, more grass titles, 15, more Grand Slam finals, 27, semi-finals, 40, and quarter-finals, 48, and more consecutive appearances in the Majors, 65, than anyone else. And in reaching this year’s semi-final, he took over another record: More Grand Slam match-wins than any other man or woman: 307.
Now, in his 40th Major semi-final, Federer was bidding to capture still more records. Should he reach a new landmark 28th final, he would overtake Jimmy Connors’ record tally of Wimbledon match-wins: They stand level at 84. Should he win the title, he would overtake that other giant of the Centre Court stage, Pete Sampras, with eight Wimbledon titles.
Yet the Federer legacy has become littered with references to another statistic. The Swiss star turns 35 in a month’s time, the oldest man in the top 30.
And there was the rub: Federer’s 2012 Wimbledon title was his last Major victory, the only one since he passed that invisible watershed of 30. He had kept himself in the conversation, had been ranked in the top three for the last two years, and came tantalizingly close to winning here again in 2014, as well as making the final here and at the US Open last year. And yet…
This year had seen a vulnerability that seemed to make his chances of more Wimbledon glory a fanciful notion. After a semi run at the Australian Open, he played just four more tournaments, eight wins from 12 matches after knee surgery, viral illness, and back problems. He arrived here without a title for the first time in 15 years and even uncertain himself how he would perform.
Asked after his five-set comeback against Marin Cilic in the quarters if he was surprised at how far he had come, he said:
“I am. I am. I was very worried coming here… Yes, I did surprise myself, in quite a big way, actually.”
However, his immediate problem—and a very big one it was, too—was the ever-improving, 6ft 5in, 25-year-old Canadian, Milos Raonic.
Tipped as the leading contender to win a Grand Slam among the next generation of players, Raonic broke the top five a year ago, suffered a dip after foot surgery and back problems, began this year with a bang to beat Federer in the Brisbane final, reached his first Australian semi-final, and arrived at Wimbledon with the No6 seeding.
Along the way, this intelligent, highly-focused young man not only added former No1 Carlos Moya to his team at the start of the year but added three-time Wimbledon champion John McEnroe immediately ahead of the grass season. And that was undoubtedly a coup, a stroke of genius, for McEnroe is not only one of Raonic’s cheerleaders but one of the finest grass tacticians of the Open era.
It was with a view to honing his huge serve and net game that Raonic recruited the American, as he admitted after working his way through some tough competition to make the semis here for the second time:
“That was a part of the motivation to bring him along to help, to improve [my net game], how much I can implement it, how and what the right moments are.”
Perhaps it was chance, but most likely not, that Raonic immediately reached his first grass final at Queen’s, and almost upset defending champion and No2 seed Andy Murray in a close three-set final.
And it was a salutary lesson to stand between their respective practice sessions a couple of hours before the first meeting between Raonic and Federer since Brisbane.
On one side, the languid Swiss barely broke into a jog as he went through the familiar motions of his 94th pre-match warm up. On the other, the huge, powerful figure of Raonic smashed overheads at the speed of sound and repeated ad infinitum some impressive net drills.
As he said ahead of this 12th meeting: “I came here with a simple goal for this tournament. I think everybody on my team has that same objective. I think that’s why John was willing to join, for that same goal.”
And if there was any doubting that goal, Raonic confirmed it was, quite simply to win the title.
All the Raonic serving power was on full show from the off against Federer, a 139mph ace in the first game. Meanwhile, Federer’s first serve was not hitting the mark often enough. He returned strongly, blocking back some massive strikes, but Raonic was bold in chasing to the net for the finish.
The Canadian broke in third game and, in the face of multiple serves at or near 140mph, it was hard to see a way back for the Swiss. After 33 minutes, the Canadian was ahead, 6-3.
The second set was tighter, Federer picking up the Raonic serve and producing a couple of love holds himself. The Swiss tried to defuse the Canadian with slice, angle, change of direction, but Raonic lived with him, serving big and forcing baseline errors from Federer to fight off four break points—which were set points—and he held to love to take it to a tie-break.
A shoot-out against the Raonic serve is far from ideal, and Raonic took the lead with a 139mph ace, but it was Federer who got the first mini-break, held serve for 6-3, and took the set, 7-6(3).
Federer was now keeping it very tidy, just six errors in the set, and he got his first break with a forehand winner in the seventh game. A hold to love with an ace sealed the set and, it seemed, the momentum, 6-4. He had made just one error in the set.
With exactly two hours on the clock, Federer held his first serve with three aces, but he could not find the break despite working chances in the fifth game, two deuces in the seventh, and a break point in the ninth. Raonic reeled off three massive serves to hold, and then a 143mph bullet at 0-30 in the 11th.
Federer had looked secure throughout, but from 40-0 up, he double faulted twice and suddenly found himself facing set points. He made an ace, but Raonic sensed his moment, and a poor volley back to Raonic from Federer deserved the pass it got. The Canadian had levelled, 7-5, and Federer suddenly looked all in.
Perhaps this was the chickens coming home to roost from his five-setter in the quarters. The Swiss took some treatment on his thigh, and after a heavy fall chasing down a volley, needed some treatment to his knee as well.
He was struggling, afterwards admitting that he was unsure of the nature or seriousness of the problem. He was also broken by Raonic, who then held for 4-1. A 140mph delivery made it 5-2 and a 136mph ace sealed the set and match, 6-3. Raonic was into his first Major final—and the first male Canadian ever to do so.
The Canadian’s parting shot when he picked up his runner-up trophy at Queen’s Club last month had been that hoped for a rematch with Murray very soon. He has kept his half of the promise: Now it was up to Murray to try and do the same.