From the moment Rafael Nadal went down, the talk of the men's draw at Wimbledon has been all about the semifinals. That's when Novak Djokovic would meet Roger Federer, and in a spectacular development for all concerned, that intensely compelling matchup has become reality.
To get there, some foreshadowing episodes had to unfold -- and it was regrettable to encounter such a tepid-looking group of quarterfinals on Wednesday. Unless you had a passion for Andy Murray's plight -- and that does include nearly the whole of Great Britain -- the schedule seemed hardly becoming for the most important tournament in the world.
The Federer-Mikhail Youzhny quarterfinal drew a glittering array of Centre Court guests, from the luminous Duchess of Cambridge (alongside the Duke) to such former stars as Rod Laver, Manolo Santana, Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf, Ion Tiriac, Pam Shriver and Mark Philippoussis.
The actual match would have welcomed a cameo appearance from any of them. Even Jeff Tarango would have sufficed. Youzhny is an engaging fellow who always makes his emotions quite clear, and he played in a state of bemused exasperation as Federer -- showing no trace of the back injury that required treatment during his fourth-round match -- hammered out a 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 win.
At one point, Youzhny turned to the Royal Box and said something along the lines of, "Can you tell me what I'm supposed to do out here?"
"I think he was talking to Agassi," Federer said. "That's what Andre told me afterwards. Just jokes; Mikhail is a great guy. I thought that his pretty funny, him speaking to the Royal Box."
At any rate, the lifetime scoreboard: Federer 14 wins, Youzhny 0.
If this matchup barely registered on the excitement meter, Djokovic-Florian Mayer might have flat-lined at zero. The best thing you could say about the Serb's 6-4, 6-1, 6-4 victory is that it was contested without interruption on Court 1, played on an afternoon that began in the customary gloom and wound up being delightfully sunny.
The problem with the Jo-Wilfried Tsonga-Philipp Kohlschreiber quarterfinal wasn't the match itself, a titanic struggle on Court 1. It's just that the 28-year-old Kohlschreiber hasn't done one thing, in a long career, to really draw the general public's attention. He was Mayer and Youzhny all over again. One could sense a massive sigh of relief around the All England Club when the entertaining Tsonga pulled out a 7-6 (5), 4-6, 7-6 (3), 6-2 win, and by the time Murray defeated David Ferrer in a scintillating display of shotmaking and athleticism, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (6), 6-4, 7-6 (4), all seemed right with the world. A Murray-Tsonga semifinal should be Wimbledon theater of the highest order.
In studying what lies ahead in the Djokovic-Federer semifinal, a remarkable number stands out: zero. That's how many times the two have played on grass, and this is no fly-by-night matchup. Federer leads the rivalry 14-12, dating back to the clay courts of Monte Carlo in 2006, and they have played five times at the U.S. Open alone.
"Because of that, we don't really know what to expect," Federer said. "I feel it's a bit of an even ground."
Djokovic agreed, saying, "I've improved playing on grass the last couple of years. I mean, I won the title here last year, so I'm feeling good about myself on the court. I know Roger has a very smart game for this surface, maybe uses it better than I do because of that slice (on the backhand). But we'll see how it is going to turn out."
Federer dominated this matchup in the early years, winning seven of the first nine encounters, and although Djokovic won a straight-set semifinal at the 2008 Australian Open, he never felt he'd truly broken through against Federer until last year, when the Serb went a stunning 70-6 and won three of the majors, defeating Federer in the semifinals of both the Australian and U.S. Open.
Even at that, though, Federer held a grip on his incomparable reputation. Djokovic couldn't get past Federer in the French Open semifinals, a thrilling four-setter that saw an unusually demonstrative Federer wave a finger of warning at the finish, as if to say, "That's right, everyone. Count me out at your peril."
It's no accident that Federer picked that result to show a little swagger. He didn't care at all for Djokovic in the early years, feeling he was a whiner, and a hypochondriac, and a man who occasionally couldn't control the overly exuberant celebrations from his friends and family.
"He used to maybe have a bit of, you know, a match where he wouldn't play so well at times, or lose early in a tournament for, you know, some reason," Federer said on Wednesday, summoning a diplomatic front. "He had some health issues early on, some breathing problems, little things that obviously play a role in the everyday grind on tour. So I think he's been able to put a lot of these things aside, and he seems a very complete and happy player out there right now.
"I've always respected him," Federer said. "Have I gone out to dinner with him? No. But I have no issues with him, and I hope you believe me."
Considering that Djokovic and Federer are at the very heart of a "golden age of men's tennis" discussion, it's remarkable that they've played only one Grand Slam final (Federer winning the 2007 U.S. Open) over the seven-year history of their rivalry. Ten of their last 12 meetings have been semifinals, and of all the ones that didn't go well for Federer, he would likely pinpoint last year's U.S. Open as the most frustrating and inexplicable.
Remember, he had beaten Djokovic at Roland Garros a few months before, and during an interview at the Cincinnati tournament that summer, Federer boldly proclaimed, "I don't have the mentality block with Novak that maybe Rafa does." But then came the semifinal at Arthur Ashe Stadium -- and one of the most stunning match-point scenes in the history of tennis.
It seemed such a foregone conclusion: two sets all, Federer leading 5-3 and serving at 40-15 in the fifth. Federer cracked a first serve to the forehand and Djokovic, figuring he had little to lose at that point, wound up and belted the ball as hard as he possibly could. It traveled on a laser-like path for a cross-court winner. The crowd had been decidedly pro-Federer at that stage, and Djokovic turned to raise his arms in triumph, essentially saying, "How about that? Do you love me now?"
Federer saw no beauty in the moment. He gave no credit to Djokovic for a reckless gamble that paid off so handsomely. "Look, some players grow up and play like that," he said, rather bitterly, after the match. "Just being down 5-2 in the third and they just start slapping shots. I guess that's how they grew up playing, but I never played that way. I believe in a hard-work's-gonna-pay-off kind of thing. So, for me, this is very hard to understand how you can play a shot like that on match point."
Federer still had another match point in his favor, but he was rattled. He watched a forehand clip the net-cord and go out. Finally, on the second break point against him, he double-faulted the game away. Djokovic went on to win the set and match, 7-5, the master stroke of his historic year.
That crazy match point didn't come up during Wednesday's press conferences. This is a new year, another continent, on grass, and the way this tournament has progressed, Federer and Djokovic might find themselves playing indoors. But you know they remember the sequence. They remember it all. This rainy, sputtering Wimbledon will welcome the encore.