LONDON -- Five thoughts from Novak Djokovic's and Roger Federer's victories in the Wimbledon semifinals on Friday:
1. It’s starting to feel a lot like 2006 or so. Federer cruised into his ninth Wimbledon final, beating Milos Raonic in three clinical, son-let-me-show-you-how-it’s-done-here sets. Federer broke Raonic in the first game of the match, which may as well have been a knockout blow. He never trailed and played businesslike, drama-free tennis for a 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 win. The one advantage Raonic held over Federer: the serve. But the combination of the wind inside Centre Court and Federer’s block-back returns had the effect of demilitarizing Raonic.
Meanwhile, what Federer lacked in velocity, he made up for with pinpoint placement on his serve. It's not for nothing that he's been broken only once in this tournament. Federer is 32 and the father of four, and he's just three sets away from his eighth Wimbledon and 18th major title.
2. It was a fine tournament for Milos Raonic, the Canadian playing in his first Grand Slam semifinal. But if this tournament should confirm that he has top-level talent, it should also confirm that there’s still work to be done. He is still too dependent on his serve, which is devastating when it’s on, but doesn’t get a lot of help when it drops a level – as was the case on Friday.
And while Raonic’s movement has improvement immensely, there’s still work to be done. Time and again, Federer won points with superior movement, gliding through rallies while Raonic lurched. The Canadian takes leave of grass ranked squarely in the top 10, but this was like a guided realtors' tour of the (spacious) room for improvement.
3. To traffic in understatement, Novak Djokovic did not play his best match. He slipped and slid and missed routine shots. Up a set and with a point for 4-1, he let his opponent, Grigor Dimitrov, back in the match, going more than 15 minutes without winning a game. He broke Dimitrov early in the fourth set and then, ever the philanthropist, gave the break right back. His play at the net was shaky at times. And yet, his 6-4, 3-6, 7-6(2), 7-6 (7) win ought to infuse him with confidence. This was about will, not skill, and Djokovic fought -- as he often does -- and essentially stole a match.
All players can win when they’re dialing in their shots and zoning. It’s the real champion who figures out ways to get out of the labyrinth, that extricate himself from danger. Down 6-3 in the fourth-set tiebreak, Djokovic declined to miss, made two well-considered dashes to the net and took advantage of two bad points by Dimitrov. He swiped the tiebreak, and thus the win on a day of suboptimal tennis. Survive and advance, as a wise man once put it.
4. If you’re Grigor Dimitrov, what are you feeling right now? Pride? Sure. Dimitrov offered a fine tasting menu of his skills this Wimbledon, reaching his first Grand Slam semifinal, winning fans (more than a few of them female, it should probably be said) and generally validating and certifying so much hype. He should be proud of how he handled himself, proud of the tactical adjustments he made against Djokovic and proud that fitness, a longtime liability, didn’t let him down.
But one suspects he also feels the sting of disappointment. Djokovic was there for the taking and Dimitrov could not quite close. Had he won one more point in the fourth-set tiebreak, he would have rolled into a final set with momentum as his wingman. Instead, he retreated -- figuratively and literally -- and failed to meet the moment. There will be more moments in the future. But he missed a chance to break through even further.
5. The expression “nothing to lose” redounds and rebounds through sports. But in the case of Sunday’s final, Djokovic and Federer have plenty to lose, which is just one of innumerable reasons why this is a such compelling matchup. The stalwarts dispatched of the kids, and we get another final featuring two of the Big Four.
In the case of Djokovic, this will be a chance to repatriate himself with winning. It’s been 18 months since he won his last Grand Slam (Australian Open in 2013). He's lost five of his last six Grand Slam finals. He hired Boris Becker specifically for these moments: to help him close the deal. This is a huge opportunity. And will be a source of deep despair if he fails.
Federer -- who leads the head-to-head rivalry 18-16 -- also has plenty at stake in his ninth Wimbledon final. He knows as well as anyone that these occasions are finite. A lot has to go right for him to win a Grand Slam title and a lot has gone right here. The weather, the draw, the conditions and -- not least -- the state of his game. What a pity it will be for him to get this close -- it’s his first major final since he won here in 2012 -- and come up short. Whatever the motivations, the incentive to win and the disincentive to lose, Sunday should be tremendous.
Can we ponder what could have happened had Venus Williams beaten finalist Petra Kvitova in the third round?
-- Devaughn, Baptiste, Trinidad & Tobago
• Let’s. At this writing, that was the match of the tournament, male or female. Venus was serving well, moving well and competing well. Given her medical history, it’s also worth nothing that she was still going strong at 5-5 in the third set. She ended up losing 7-5 (that was the only time her serve was broken), but she could hardly be too disappointed with her performance. We can ponder this, too: If she had won that match and remained in the singles draw, might Tuesday's doubles debacle with sister Serena never happened?
How about a little shout-out for Vera Zvonareva for quietly coming back and making into the third round? I was surprised to see her name in the draw and even more surprised that not one TV commentator (on ESPN, I don't have Tennis Channel) mentioned a former finalist coming back, nor did they show even a snippet of her matches. I had assumed that she informally retired after injury. Well done, Vera.
-- Greg, Philadelphia
• The shout-out doesn’t even have to be little. Who among us doesn’t celebrate these mini comebacks -- and the general notion that players getting on in years can still wring some wins out of their games? Ranked an unseemly No. 566, the 29-year-old Zvonareva made the most of her wild card and, candidly, should have beaten Zarina Diyas to reach the round of 16.
In response to the 32-seed vs. 16-seed question sent to you last week, my initial impulse was to agree with the questioner (that 32 seeds has produced fewer interesting early-round matches). However, on further reflection, it seems to me that it has actually produced more upsets than the old system (particularly in the women's draw). Over the past few years, barring the occasional first-round upset, the danger zone for the top players has been in rounds two through four. Could it be that the middle-tier tennis players benefit more from getting extra match play than do the top players (who usually have more lopsided early-round wins)? As an example, a rusty Alize Cornet loses to a rusty Serena Williams in round one, but an Alize Cornet with two good matches behind her has a better chance of knocking out a Serena Williams who still hasn't been tested by round three. Wild theory? Surely statistical analysis can be done on the subject.
-- Croydon F., Chicago
• I hear that. Not bad. And, as always, we gripe at the "meh" matches in the first week, but they’re long forgotten by Week 2. I just ask this: should the No. 32 player really be protected and ensured of not having to face a higher opponent for the first two rounds?
If the roof is closed for some of a match (or all of a match) -- i.e., the Australian Open or Wimbledon -- does the match count as an indoor result or outdoor result?
-- Jeff, New York
• Interesting question. The “intended” surface governs. So when, for instance, Federer beat Andy Murray in the 2012 Wimbledon final under the roof, it counted as a grass result, not an indoor result.
Here is a hypothesis. Please tell me why it's wrong and why it would never happen: Player A is a top-five player and a Grand Slam champion. He/she loses unexpectedly in a Grand Slam, and afterward says nothing about being injured or ill. A few days pass, and someone from Player A's camp suggests that he/she was injured or ill at the time of the loss. This accomplishes a few things. It sows some doubt in the minds of rivals that the result wasn't legit, that it happened because Player A wasn't close to 100 percent. It also allows that seed to be planted without Player A actually having to do it him/herself and appearing to be a poor sport and excuse maker. This would never happen. Right?
-- Ian Katz
• No! Never! What? Never. (Well, hardly ever.)