Since 2002, the grip on the Wimbledon title has been relinquished by Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal only twice, and that was to Andy Murray in 2013 and 2016. The Briton, though, had been absent from Wimbledon since 2017 with hip injury and surgery, and that left ‘the big three’ to do their worst.
And here they were again, vying for the semis once more, though the trio had gone on to reach the semis together here on only one occasion, in 2007: Nadal then beating Djokovic before falling to Federer in the final.
However, the fourth spot would be contested by two men who had both come through higher seeds to reach their first Wimbledon quarter-finals, No22 Roberto Bautista Agut and No26 Guido Pella.
The former, who had not dropped a set thus far, took out No10 Karen Khachanov, while Pella survived a demanding five-setter to beat No15 Milos Raonic, having already beaten last year’s runner-up Kevin Anderson and surviving another five-setter against Andreas Seppi.
In the end, those long matches, compared with the streamline progress of Bautista Agut to the quarters, began to tell, and while Pella put up a spirited effort through an arduous three hours of long rallies, he could not hold off the Spaniard, 7-5, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3. And it the man who was missing his stag night in Ibiza this weekend, an emotional first-ever Major semi-final.
Already, the first of ‘the three’ was through and waiting for him. Defending champion and world No1 Novak Djokovic had reached the quarters without playing a seed thus far, and he would play neither of the expected seeds here, for No7 Stefanos Tsitsipas and No11 Daniil Medvedev had been beaten, the latter by the remaining man, No21 David Goffin. And the slight Belgian had actually won his last match against Djokovic, at the ATP Finals.
Goffin began with some sublime tennis, teasing and squeezing an unsettled Djokovic, and after threatening the Djokovic serve early in the set, he finally got the lead with a break in the seventh game.
It galvanized the Serb, whose accuracy went up a notch, and Djokovic stepped in to take on the Goffin serve. Sure enough, it forced errors and the break back. From there, the No1 held and broke again, 6-4.
Order was restored, and though Goffin ran and chivvied as only he can, chasing back for a lob tweener, racing in for a volley winner, he was simply outplayed, and it knocked the stuffing out of the Belgian. Game after game, Djokovic had the answer, not with fireworks but with pinpoint accuracy and rhythm to every square inch of the court. He reeled off another six games—nine in a row, now—to take the second set, 6-0, though he had needed only six winners to do so.
Could Goffin summon anything in reply after a three-and-a-half-hour effort to beat Medvedev and then another three hours to beat Fernando Verdasco? His serving level had dropped right off, but he found something of the first-set form to work a break point in the third game of the third.
Djokovic, though, rode the brief storm to hold, and a weary double fault from Goffin handed over the break for 3-1. The Belgian had another bite of the cherry in the fifth game, but again could not convert, and the game was up. Djokovic broke once more, 6-2.
Djokovic afterwards highlighted the great position in which he finds himself after five matches without facing a seed inside the top 20:
“I had a tough match in the third round. Other than that, I’ve won in straight sets and played really well throughout the tournament. It’s exactly what I wanted and hopefully I can go in the right direction in the semis as well.”
So would Federer and Nadal play their part in this recurring story, too?
The Swiss eight-time champion had the toughest challenge, having faced the toughest route to this stage: He was the only one of the triumvirate to have faced his scheduled seeds: Lucas Pouille, Matteo Berrettini, and now the No8 seed Kei Nishikori. An the Japanese man had won their last match at the ATP Finals, and also pushed the No2 seed to five sets in their only previous Major match, Australia in 2017.
And now, Nishikori made a blistering start, taking the ball early on the Swiss serve and drawing errors and the immediate break. A quick hold, and the Japanese man went 0-40 up on the Federer serve, ready to make a double break. But the Swiss upped the heat, five points on the trot to hold.
Nishikori had clearly been working on a more aggressive, forward-moving game, and it seemed to take Federer half the set to adjust to the tactics. He faced another break point in the fifth game, again resisted, and worked his own chance to level in the sixth. But the errors kept coming, including a wide forehand, his 11th error of the match, 2-4.
The Federer serve did begin to find a rhythm but he needed to break if he was to stay in the first set, and he could not. The Japanese star led, 6-4.
Federer opened the second set much more aggressively, taking the initiative, this time holding and then breaking to love with a 95mph forehand winner. A love hold and it was 3-0 with 11 points from 12, and he stormed to 6-1.
Nishikori had to work hard to fight off a break point in the first game of the third, while Federer continued to serve well. Three times in the seventh game Nishikori had to save break points, but finally the Swiss succeeded with a forehand winner, and then held to love, 5-3. He would blow his first set point with a dire smash, and Nishikori did not capitalise on a chance to break back, but after almost two hours, the Swiss had the lead, 6-4.
Federer had a chance to break immediately, and several times more, in the first, the third and the fifth games of the fourth set, as he alternated brilliant returns with over-eager strikes. But finally, he broke at the key moment, and served out the set and match, 6-4, to love and with an ace.
He raised his arms to the crowd in victory, not realising it was, in fact, his 100th victory at Wimbledon, and indeed a record 100th victory at any single Major by anyone. Well, this is his 21st appearance at the All England Club, and he has won eight times from 11 finals.
He played it down, though:
“It’s not like I think I have to get my 100: I just try to win the next point and then hopefully at the end of the match you have your hands in the air. It was only after the match, a fan said ‘congratulations on your 100’, and I was like ‘Oh yeah, it’s my 100′. It’s so nice, and getting it against Kei is very nice.”
But that was not all Federer had achieved. He looked at the scoreboard for the other quarter-final, where Nadal was two sets and a break up against the only unseeded man of the day, Sam Querrey. The Spaniard would win, after little more than two hours, 7-5, 6-2, 6-2, and that set one of the most highly-anticipated contests of the tournament.
Federer and Nadal played perhaps the most famous final ever seen at Wimbledon in 2008, and they have not played here since, or on grass anywhere.
It is a bruising draw, and no mistake, and they will play it having won 37 matches each so far this season, more than any other player.
So for the first time in 12 years, ‘the three’ are lined up in the final four at Wimbledon: That’s some company, Bautista Agut.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge