The quarter-finalists for the 150th anniversary of the All England Club had all the required pedigree. First and foremost, three champions, three of the most prolific Major champions in tennis.
In one half, Roger Federer, top seed, eight-time winner at Wimbledon and with 20 Major trophies in his cabinet, was a record-holder many times over—including the oldest to reach No1 just five months ago.
In the other half was second seed but world No1, Rafael Nadal, with two Wimbledon titles, 17 Majors, including a record 11 at Roland Garros, and owner of a record 32 Masters titles.
Much had been made before the tournament of the epic final encounter here a decade ago, which yielded Nadal his first Wimbledon title against Federer. Back then, they were also Nos1 and 2 in the world: Here they were again, at the top of the pile and winners of the last six Majors.
In between the two, and rapidly becoming one of the favourites for the title this weekend, was fellow No1 Novak Djokovic, a 12-time Major champion, three-time winner at Wimbledon, and owner of 30 Masters titles. Injury ended his season last year right here, but his fast-rising return to form and fitness over the last couple of months was coming just at the right time. He may have bene seeded 12, ranked 21, but he was one among this trio of outstanding tennis stars in the Open era.
Yet their fellow five quarter-finalists were none too shabby, especially in the context of the such dominance by three men for the last decade or more.
No5 seed, Juan Martin del Potro could rise to a career-high No3 with a win on second Wednesday: He too was a former Major champion, many times returned from potentially career-ending wrist surgery, and playing as well as ever.
And the other four had reason to be optimistic about breaking their own new ground this Wimbledon. Milos Raonic, a former No3, had a fine record at The Championships: finalist in 2016; semi-finalist in 2014, and quarter-finalist last year. His quality had earned a boost from a current 32 ranking to No13 seed.
The remaining three had, remarkably, not made the quarters at Wimbledon before, but had quietly ticked off impressive results in their many years on the tour.
No8 seed Kevin Anderson and No9 John Isner were looking at career-high ranks if they made it to the semis. Isner also won his first Masters in Miami this year; Anderson reached his first Major final at the US Open last year. Finally, Kei Nishikori, a former world No4, was also a Major finalist at the US Open in 2014, and could now count the quarters of all four Majors on his resume.
First up, though, was the veteran defending champion, 36-year-old Federer, moved to Court 1 for the first time in three years, and up against a man he had beaten in all four matches—without dropping a set.
Thus far, Federer’s progress had been near flawless: not dropping serve, let alone a set, against a variety of opponents. But Federer and Anderson had not played in three years, and the late-blooming South African had moved onwards and upwards since those days. Just how far became more apparent as the match unfolded.
It started with Federer in control, breaking immediately, holding to love, and breaking again in the seventh game. He had the first set, 6-2, in 26 minutes. Then things got much closer as the big serving and forehand of Anderson worked Federer around the court, and the South African settled, making fewer errors, striking with more confidence.
He broke in the second game, and took a 3-0 lead with a love hold. But Federer replied to break in the fifth, though it took him three attempts—a story that would come back to bite him again later.
By the time Federer fought off another break point, for 3-3, the set had already lasted as long as the first set, and would double that to reach a tie-break. There, Anderson took the initial lead, 2-0, before Federer made a run of five points. But offered three set points, he could not convert, hit two forehands long to go back on serve. He snatched the next point, however, 7-6(5).
Anderson had made more winners, and just seven errors, a sign of how aggressively and cleanly he was playing, and that reaped big rewards in the third. But Federer would rue missed chances. He had break point in the 10th game—a match point—but shanked a forehand, and in the next game, Anderson ripped a series of return winners to break the Swiss. Federer had three more break points to take it to a tie-break, but a 100mph forehand and an ace did the job for Anderson, 7-5.
The South African was now playing near perfect tennis, 12 winners to three errors in that set. Indeed both men were playing at a very high level, twice the winners to errors in the match. But Anderson’s firepower and confidence were just as strong in the fourth set: Another return of serve winner from Anderson got a break, and Federer could not convert a break point, despite a flurry of winners from the Swiss.
It meant Anderson levelled the match 6-4, and although Federer had thumped 13 winners for only four errors, that was not good enough. Anderson had 16 for two.
It was truly impressive, but not as impressive as what followed: a marathon of a deciding set, between two men with a combined age of 68. It would last and hour and a half and 24 games. Federer had the chance to break and serve for the set in the eighth game, but there were few chances on either side, in a tense tussle to 11-11.
Anderson’s serving looking increasingly impregnable, love holds in succession, while Federer hit his first and only double fault after more than four hours of play. It heralded a break point, and Anderson took it. A decisive hold, and he had scored the biggest win of his career, 13-11, and the biggest upset of this year’s Wimbledon.
On Centre Court, Djokovic had been having his own mini battle against a man he had dominated until now. He led Nishikori, 13-2—indeed the Japanese man had not won since the 2014 US Open. But like the rejuvenated Djokovic, Nishikori was playing extremely well here.
Perhaps it would come down to fitness, for Nishikori had played a series of long matches, and his elbow played up in the last of them. Something of an irony, given that Djokovic had been forced off the tour for so long with an elbow injury.
This, too, would be nip and tuck, with an early Djokovic break cancelled out by Nishikori, before breaking again and serving out the set, 6-3. Nishikori came under heavy pressure in the first game of the next set, a nine-minute plus hold. That done, Djokovic picked up a code violation, and Nishikori pounced for the break. He held his lead for the set, 6-3.
But come the third set, Nishikori did indeed have strapping on his elbow, but that did not stop him earning three break chances. He failed to convert, was broken straight back, and again, Djokovic had the set, 6-2, the momentum, and, after dropping serve in the first game of the fourth set, he surged on to seal his semi place, 6-2.
He told the BBC:
“It feels great to be in the last four of a Slam. I’ve been building in the past couple of weeks, and the level of tennis has been going up in the past couple of months. This is not the first time I have been in the semi-finals here but I will try to enjoy this victory.”
It actually took Djokovic to his 32nd Major semi, and the last time he made the semis here, in 2015, he went on to win the title—and the next three Majors.
A couple of months ago, few may have anticipated such a resurgence at this Wimbledon. Now Djokovic is again a serious contender for the title—and perhaps all the more so following the efforts of Anderson, and subsequently Nadal and del Potro, to pursue their own semi-final spots.
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BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge
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