At 29, Stan Wawrinka should be regarded as one of the old guard rather than a standard-bearer for the new generation, but that is not how some of the younger players look at him.
When Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov attempt to strike blows for the new wave as they take on Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic respectively in this afternoon’s semi-finals, the two 23-year-olds will be aiming to follow the example Wawrinka set when he won the Australian Open in January. Until Wawrinka triumphed in Melbourne, the Fab Four of Federer, Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray had won 33 of the previous 34 Grand Slam tournaments.
As Raonic looked ahead to his meeting with Federer – who beat Wawrinka in the quarter-finals here on Wednesday – the Canadian was in no doubt about his major source of inspiration in terms of the achievements of other players. “The one result that stands out the most this year in my eyes – and maybe other guys’ as well – has to be what Stan did at the beginning of the year,” Raonic said.
“It doesn’t have to be from a young guy. I think it has to be from this group who are considered contenders but haven’t been able to break through. I think that result, with Stan beating Novak and Rafa at the same tournament, was the biggest sign of belief and relief for a lot of guys. You sort of felt like: OK, he did it. I feel like I compete well with this guy. Why can’t I do it’?”
Raonic and Dimitrov, who will be attempting to become the first Canadian and Bulgarian respectively to reach a men’s Grand Slam final, have long been regarded as two of the brightest prospects among their generation, but both have taken time to make their mark. Raonic, whose compatriot Eugenie Bouchard is already through to tomorrow’s women’s final, had never gone beyond the fourth round of a Slam tournament until the recent French Open, while Dimitrov won his first title less than 12 months ago.
Dimitrov has believed for a while that a changing of the guard is “just around the corner” but acknowledges that the new generation need to perform consistently at the biggest events. Raonic agrees. “The new guys have got to come up and they’ve got to step up,” he said. “We’ve been doing better and better, especially throughout this year.”
Both of the younger men have inferior head-to-head records against their opponents this afternoon. Raonic has lost all four of his matches against Federer, while Dimitrov has won only one of his four meetings with Djokovic. Federer has 17 Grand Slam titles to his name and Djokovic has six.
Raonic, however, is determined not to be over-awed by his opponent’s reputation. He will regard Federer simply as the next man standing in his path as he attempts to become the best player in the world.
“I’m going to step out there and I’m not playing the seven-time Wimbledon champion,” the Canadian said. “I’m not playing a 32-year-old man. I’m not playing a father of two sets of twins. I’m not playing the guy that’s won whatever he’s won, which I could probably list quite vividly. I’m playing a guy that is standing in the way of what I want to achieve, and I’ve got to focus on everything that’s there, on the situation, how best to deal with it to give myself the best possibilities to achieve what I want.”
Raonic’s huge serve is a major weapon, particularly on grass, but the Canadian has proved over the last fortnight that there is much more to his game than that. He has sometimes failed to deliver on the most important stages in the past, but there have been signs here that he is developing the mental strength to handle the biggest occasions. Dimitrov, meanwhile, has quickly put the shock of his French Open first-round exit behind him and proved during his subsequent 10-match unbeaten run what a formidable performer he is on grass.
Federer believes the reign of the old guard is far from over but welcomes the arrival of fresh blood at the top. “It’s exciting for the game to see new faces like [Nick] Kyrgios, Raonic or [Kei] Nishikori,” he said. “There have been a few guys knocking on the door, though we still don’t have as many teenagers as I would have hoped.
“It’s just hard breaking through. You get the [ranking] points from the semis onwards, not really from the quarters any more like it used to be, so it’s hard I think for a youngster to win or be consistent over three, four, five matches in a row, where the big points are. But other than that, I think it’s good times in tennis right now. There’s a lot of excitement.”
Semi-final: Tales of the tape
N Djokovic/G Dimitrov
66 Career finals 5
44 Career wins 4
13 Slam finals 0
6 Slam wins 0
101 Weeks at No 1 0
£32.3m Career earnings £1.8m
Winner SW19 best SF
R Federer/M Raonic
118 Career finals 10
79 Career wins 5
24 Slam finals 0
17 Slam wins 0
302 Weeks at No 1 0
£43.7m Career earnings £2.7m
Winner x7 SW19 best SF