It was, said Roger Federer, the grass wot won it. Plus, he would have added but for modesty, his own sublime talent. The combination of grass and class proved far too good for Novak Djokovic yesterday as the defending champion was despatched in four sets. Going into their semi-final, Federer had lost six of his previous seven matches against Novak Djokovic, but none were on the green lawn the Swiss regards more fondly than his own back garden. Indeed, the duo had not met on grass on any of their 26 previous encounters which, said Federer, gave this match a fresh dimension.
"The surface made the match different in my favour," said Federer, "It doesn't make it as physical, it's more explosive, I was able to be very aggressive." Federer, five years Djokovic's elder, took full advantage, imposing himself on the Serb for much of a match that was more one-sided than anticipated.
He rattled through the opening set 6-3 in 24 minutes and while Djokovic responded in kind to take the second, Federer took command, and the third and fourth sets, 6-3, 6-4, to reach his eighth Wimbledon final. Six of the previous seven have ended in victory and if he plays like this Federer will be a formidable opponent for Andy Murray, a Wimbledon final debutant, to beat.
"I have missed being in the final here the last couple of years," said Federer, "so it's great. But I'm aware the tournament is not over. I didn't break down crying and fall to my knees and think I've achieved what I wanted." What Federer wants to achieve is to match Pete Sampras's Wimbledon record of seven titles. "I'm proud to have a shot at equalling Pete," said Federer. "Everyone knows what a hero he is to me."
The courts are slower than in Sampras's era but they remain quicker than the other Grand Slam surfaces and it was quickly apparent that the ability to return service would be crucial. It was midway through the second game before a point lasted more than three shots, with only nine points won against service in the first set. Unfortunately for Djokovic four of those were in his third service game and that cost him the set. Djokovic took a 30-love lead in that game, then a net cord diverted a volley wide. Two errors and a Federer cross-court backhand later and he was broken. Though the Serb won the next point, on Federer's serve, he never threatened a break with Federer firing three aces as he won his next eight service points.
Given the problems with his back, which has received intensive treatment after each match this week, it was the start Federer needed. However, Djokovic was defending a record of five successive grand slam final appearances and he took advantage of a sloppy service game to break at the start of the second set then serve out.
Thus far the match had not touched the heights anticipated as the pair had been alternately dominant rather than both playing well at once. "I wouldn't say there had been nothing to cheer about, but the points had been awfully short," admitted Federer.
The third set was different. With both players having shaken any residual stiffness from their limbs and adapted to the close atmosphere created by the closed roof, the contest cranked up a gear. The rallies grew longer, service games tighter, shot-making necessarily more inventive. Federer, who seemed to have the bulk of the Centre Court crowd behind him, forced the pace but Djokovic hung in. On his first service games he saved one break point, on his third service game he saved two. "I thought I had missed my chance and might pay for it," said Federer. "I almost did when he had break points."
That was at 4-4 but Djokovic was unable to keep his service return within court and Federer closed out the game. Maybe the missed opportunity preyed on Djokovic's mind as he began his next service game carelessly to go 15-30 then prompted gasps of surprise as he overhit a volley with Federer stranded. Djokovic saved the first set point but passed up two chances to win the second before gifting Federer a volleyed winner with a weak lob.
Djokovic is never knowingly beaten but now he looked troubled and Federer imperious. Federer, showing the elegant ruthlessness of an Ian Fleming assassin, moved in for the kill, breaking early in the fourth to take a 3-0 lead. At this stage Federer had won five games on the trot and when Djokovic was forced to deuce in his next service game a rout beckoned. Djokovic held, but Federer was now playing the best tennis of either man during the match and Djokovic struggled to cope, either over-hitting as he searched for winners or beaten as Federer unfurled a stroke of genius. At the US Open last year he came from two sets and match point down to win their semi-final, but this time Federer never left the door ajar. The end came after two hours and 19 minutes with a 126mph unreturned service.
"I thought from the beginning of the match to the end of the third we were quite even, but I played a poor service game at 4-5 and he takes the opportunities," said Djokovic. "Then I was sloppy at the start of the fourth. That 20 minutes at the end of the third to the start of the fourth cost me the game. You have to be consistent – I wasn't. He played well but I expected him to be at the top level. I expected myself to be too, and I wasn't."
Djokovic made Federer the favourite for the final on the basis of the "history he has at Wimbledon", but said he would not be watching the match. "I'm going to try and take my mind off tennis. I'm going on my holidays." Probably to somewhere sandy rather than grassy.