The talk for the last fortnight has been of the new wave of players about to take over at the top of the game, but tomorrow’s final here will be contested by two of the four men who have dominated the sport for the best part of a decade.
Roger Federer will play in his 25th Grand Slam final and will attempt to become the first man to claim eight Wimbledon titles when he faces Novak Djokovic, who will be seeking his second All England Club crown. Federer has already won a record 17 Grand Slam titles, while Djokovic has six to his name.
While Federer coasted through his semi-final yesterday, crushing Canada’s Milos Raonic 6-4, 6-4, 6-4, Djokovic was made to work before securing his place in the Wimbledon final for the third time in the last four years by beating Grigor Dimitrov 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 7-6.
Federer has won only one Grand Slam title since the 2010 Australian Open, but you write off the 32-year-old Swiss at your peril. Just as he did when beating Andy Murray to win the 2012 title here, the former world No 1 has proved that there is no substitute for grass-court mastery when competition begins on the sport’s greatest stage. Now Federer has the chance to become the oldest Grand Slam champion in the Open era, replacing Arthur Ashe, who was 31 when he won the title here in 1975.
Raonic had hit 147 aces en route to the semi-finals, but in Federer he was facing an opponent who has spent much of his career picking off big-serving opponents. Federer, whose own serve has been broken only once in his six matches so far, needed just one break in each set.
Prospects looked ominous for Raonic from the moment he was broken in the opening game. The Canadian went break point down with a double fault and then put a forehand wide. Federer, having saved a break point with a service winner at 4-3, went on to serve out for the first set with cool efficiency.
The break in the second set came when Raonic played a dreadful service game at 4-4. A double fault, a Federer backhand winner down the line and a missed smash gave the Swiss three break points and he took the second of them with another majestic backhand.
Federer won the third set in identical fashion. Once again Raonic went 0-40 down when serving at 4-4 and a missed forehand gave the Swiss the break. An unreturned serve on his first match point gave Federer victory after just an hour and 41 minutes.
Djokovic, meanwhile, underlined his reputation as the game’s most consistent performer. The Serb was playing in his 16th semi-final in the last 17 Grand Slam tournaments and in his fifth in a row here. Dimitrov, who beat Murray in the previous round, is arguably the most exciting of the younger group of players, but the 23-year-old Bulgarian was usually second best at the key moments.
Grass is the most challenging surface for most players and the conditions on Centre Court in the first semi-final were particularly demanding. On a glorious afternoon, Dimitrov in particular appeared to have trouble with the sun when he served at one end.
The gusting wind was also deceptively strong, though the greatest problem was the slippery playing surface. Both men often had trouble keeping their feet, particularly behind the baselines, where the lush green grass of the opening days has turned into a brown dust bowl. In the dry, hot and windy conditions the surface has become so worn in some areas that it is now like a sheet of glass.
Dimitrov and Djokovic are two of the best athletes in the men’s game, but when they chased balls out wide their attempts to turn and race back into position were often thwarted as they struggled to keep their feet. Djokovic sent for a new pair of shoes midway through the third set.
Djokovic took the first set in just 27 minutes. Having watched Dimitrov attack Murray’s second serves to great effect, he set about denying the Bulgarian any such opportunity to repeat the treatment here. Djokovic found the target with 19 first serves in a row at the start of the match, while Dimitrov struggled with his timing and frequently mishit.
Dimitrov looked to be in serious trouble when he was broken in the third game of the second set, but from that moment the world No 13 began to find a better rhythm and length on his sliced backhand. Dimitrov broke serve twice in a row and on his second set point Djokovic stopped playing in the belief that his opponent had hit the ball beyond the baseline, only for Hawk-Eye to prove him wrong.
The third set was tight, but Djokovic dominated the tie-break. From 2-4 down Dimitrov hit a double fault, made an over-ambitious attempt at a drop shot which landed in the net and failed to return a serve on set point.
Dimitrov was broken at 1-1 in the fourth set after serving three consecutive double faults but recovered his composure to break back immediately. Djokovic saved a first set point at 4-5 with a service winner and three more after Dimitrov took a 6-3 lead in the tie-break. Dimitrov saved a first match point with a forehand but on the second Djokovic’s forehand cross-court winner, which clipped the top of the net, ended the Bulgarian’s resistance after three hours.