Federer ruthlessly curtails Bjorkman's time in the spotlight

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There might have been a ducking-stool on Centre Court yesterday, such was the very public humiliation meted out to poor Jonas Bjorkman.

The affable Swede, three times a doubles champion here, was crushed, 6-2, 6-0, 6-2 in just an hour and 17 minutes by his friend and former protégé Roger Federer, who played spellbinding tennis to progress to his fourth consecutive Wimbledon final, and now stands just a match away from equalling the rare achievement last pulled off 30 years ago by Bjorkman's compatriot, Bjorn Borg, of winning the title without dropping a set.

To beat his French Open nemesis Rafael Nadal in straight sets tomorrow, the champion will undoubtedly face a far sterner challenge than was posed by Bjorkman. He will cheerfully settle for victory in however many sets it might take, which would match the record of Pete Sampras, who won four consecutive titles here between 1997 and 2000.

Then Federer would have his sights on that man Borg again, whose five successive titles between 1976 and 1980 represent the most dominant period one man has enjoyed at Wimbledon since the Challenge Round - the means by which the holder of the men's singles title could sit out the competition until after the all-comers' final had been decided - was abolished in 1922.

More pertinently, not since 1922 has there been a semi-final as one-sided as yesterday's. The closest in relatively recent years was Kevin Curren's 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 demolition of Jimmy Connors in 1985, but if that was a demolition, this was an immolation. To put it another way, Federer has a habit of striding back to the baseline after breaks between games with a green-and-purple All-England Club towel draped over his shoulders, giving him the air of a Roman emperor. Before even a point was played it was as if he had turned down an imperious thumb on Bjorkman; the 34-year-old must have felt as if he'd been thrown to the lions.

One can only hope that the unseeded Swede, whose only previous Grand Slam semi-final was almost nine years ago in the US Open, enjoyed the parity of one game-all in the first set. Federer then broke him to lead 2-1 and even at that early stage was unbackable on the internet betting exchange Betfair.

Bjorkman's odds after being broken just that once were already 110-1 against. They might as well have been 110,000-1. At any rate, by the time Federer had secured the first two sets and led 2-0 in the third, Liverpool's famous comeback in the European Cup final in Istanbul last year looked like an exercise in humdrum predictability compared to the likelihood of Bjorkman fighting his way back.

The Swede is popular at home for his impersonations of famous players such as Borg and Stefan Edberg - the tennis equivalent of Graham Gooch's repertoire of bowling impressions - but to beat Federer yesterday the one person he needed to impersonate, flawlessly, was Federer. The champion played as irresistibly as he had in swatting aside Mario Ancic in the quarter-final, but with less resistance.

At the grand old age of 34, Bjorkman had already greatly exceeded his own expectations by becoming the oldest man to reach a semi-final since Connors in 1987, and had said that he was just going out there to have fun. It didn't look like much fun, although he at least enjoyed the backing of a sympathetic crowd, who rewarded him with tumultuous applause for winning the third game of the third set, after losing 11 straight games. There has been a vacancy for almost a week now for the role of most popular Swedish man in England, and Bjorkman filled it. Moreover, he showed a nice flash of humour when he won a rare point against the Federer serve at 0-3 in the third set, raising a finger, in the nicest possible way, to the crowd. He won the next point too, reaching 0-30, but followed it with an unforced error, and then Federer served three successive aces at 125, 130 and 129mph as if to punish his opponent's presumption.

Afterwards, Federer, who beat Bjorkman in the third round here in 2001, said: "I got on a roll and I played excellent tennis. I got into every one of his service games and that was difficult for him.

When asked what he recalled of practising with the Swede as a 15-year-old who was not always given to practising seriously, Federer said, smiling: "He was always so intense and I came on court and just hoped for an easy hit."

What might Bjorkman have given for an easy hit yesterday? It was, he said of Federer's performance, the closest thing to perfection he had seen on a tennis court. "In a way," Bjorkman added, "I had the best seat in the house." Better that than a ducking-stool.