If ever an athlete or team felt at home — physically, emotionally, spiritually, holistically — Roger Federer at Wimbledon would rate as a top example.
Andrea Pirlo in an Italy uniform, representing the Azzurri.
Usain Bolt on any track at a high-stakes event.
Tom Brady in a Super Bowl.
The San Francisco Giants in an even-year baseball playoff series.
The Chicago Blackhawks in Game 6 or Game 7 of a hockey playoff series.
Michael Phelps or Katie Ledecky in a swimming pool.
The list goes on.
Federer at Wimbledon, though, deserves to be placed in that company.
At Wimbledon, we’ve seen Federer’s game continue to age like fine wine. His one major title after the age of 30 — one which was hardly a foregone conclusion at the time (especially in light of how hard it’s been to add another one to the tally) — came at the All-England Club in 2012. Federer has made the final at Wimbledon in three of his last four appearances there. The Swiss played one of his best matches ever — not just in 2015, but ever — in the semifinals against Andy Murray. He’s now 10-0 in Wimbledon semifinals. He gives very little away at Wimbledon. The three finals he’s lost at SW19 were pried from his hands by elite champions playing at a high level, Rafael Nadal and then Novak Djokovic.
Federer at Wimbledon is the picture of a creature being entirely immersed in his native habitat on so many levels. It makes sense that Federer and Wimbledon have continued to enjoy the happiest of marriages.
When other tournaments, other places, and surfaces other than grass didn’t lift Federer’s game, there was always the big W. There were always the classical whites and the low, knifing slices and the details — both on and off the court — which perfectly meshed with everything Federer is as a player and a person.
Old school. A mixture of power and finesse. A tournament soaked in history and built on its timeless, inwardly unchanging nature. Wimbledon and Federer go together.
Yet, while Federer was busy maintaining a high place at The Championships, the other three major tournaments didn’t retain their identities as Places Where Federer Remained Great.
It is true that winning major finals catapult players and their reputations to the stratosphere in tennis, but making major finals separates the top tier from the second one. Draws have their variations from tournament to tournament, but if you’re a giant in the sport, the chances are pretty good you’ll meet a fellow giant in the final, colliding from the other half of the bracket. As Marin Cilic learned in Friday’s first U.S. Open semifinal, you can glide through a hollowed-out quarter of the draw, but in the semifinals, you’re likely to encounter a proving-ground moment, and if you don’t show up, your place in the larger realm of your sport simply cannot grow.
Winning finals is an accomplishment for the history books. Finals are played for future decades and eras and how historians write about a topic. Finals most centrally create the memories a player, a fan, a journalist — anyone who loves a sport — carries long after the tumult and the shouting have subsided.
However, before finals occur, semifinals represent that crucial threshold, the place when an aspiring champion either follows up a quarterfinal breakthrough by retaining his winning edge, or runs up against an opponent and the realization that he’s not ready for prime time.
Federer, with 38 major semifinals to his credit, has passed his semifinal tests at the majors far more often than he hasn’t, and of course, at Wimbledon, he’s never failed at any point in his illustrious career. However, Federer was 0-3 in his last three U.S. Open semifinals. Twice, he lost semis (to Djokovic) after owning match points. When Cilic played what can now be viewed as an even more aberrationally great match than previously thought, Federer was denied last year in his bid to get back to the U.S. Open final.
In 2012, he lost in the Roland Garros semifinals to Djokovic. In 2011, he lost an Australian Open semifinal to Djokovic. In 2013, he lost an Aussie semi to the version of Andy Murray which was turning the corner under Ivan Lendl at the time. In 2012 and 2014, he was utterly outclassed by his nemesis, Rafael Nadal.
The overall numbers in non-Wimbledon major semifinals since the 2010 U.S. Open loss to Djokovic: 1-8.
Federer being 1-8 in any collection of nine matches not exclusive to Nadal on clay? That’s pretty shocking. Yet, this is why Federer’s place in tennis has been questioned — legitimately, I might add — over the past few years. Djokovic and Nadal had seemingly erected such a tall barrier in 2013 and the first half of 2014 that even though Federer remained fabulous at Wimbledon, his window of opportunity at the other three majors appeared to be extremely small.
He’d need a lucky break.
He’d need the draw to open up.
He’d need to catch a quality opponent on an off night.
Those were legitimate explanations as the years and the non-Wimbledon majors went by, one by one, without Federer making the final. With Federer advancing in years — 32, 33, now 34 — natural logic suggested that windows of opportunity were going to shrink for him.
Yet, by busting through the barrier of non-Wimbledon major finals at the U.S. Open, achieved by short-circuiting Stan Wawrinka’s first-strike game in Friday’s second semifinal, Federer has improbably managed to make his window expand in size. What was a modest-sized window in a country cottage or a small suburban enclave is now a big window with eastern and southern exposure in a three-bedroom house on a hill overlooking the rest of his old-money neighborhood.
Andy Murray’s full collection of results might still be better than what Federer has achieved in 2015. More Masters 1000 titles, more major semifinals, and a better result in his worst major of the year (fourth round, whereas Federer bowed out in the third round of the Australian Open).
Stan Wawrinka has a major title in 2015, and two other major semifinals in his pocket. In terms of enhancing his career and adding to his legacy, Wawrinka has — to this point — exceeded Federer within the confines of this calendar year.
Both Murray and Wawrinka entered New York with a place at the table, seated next to Federer, as candidates for the honor of being the second-best ATP player of 2015. (Djokovic is, of course, secure in his spot at No. 1.) With Murray and Wawrinka placed in the same quarter, a match between the two — had it happened — would have eliminated one candidate. A semifinal between the winner (or more precisely, the advancer from that quarter) and Federer was likely going to settle the No. 2 argument on tour.
With Murray exiting early, Wawrinka — a man who matched Murray’s all-time major title count at Roland Garros — entered Friday’s semifinal intent on trying to win the third leg of the Grand Slam. Given that Wawrinka punished Federer in straight sets in the French Open quarterfinals; starred on Switzerland’s Davis Cup team last November; and earned match points against Federer in the semis of the 2014 ATP World Tour Finals, there were plenty of convincing reasons to regard Wawrinka as the favorite in Friday’s match in New York. At the very least, Wawrinka deserved to be seen on the same basic competitive plane as his older Swiss buddy, a partner in crime at Davis Cup and the 2008 Olympic Games.
The upcoming U.S. Open final is about immortality and the ability to register an achievement which echoes through the pages of time. Friday’s semifinal, however, was about establishing the No. 2 player on tour — not in terms of rankings points, but in terms of stature and big-moment credibility within the sport. Federer and Wawrinka had each won a major semifinal earlier this year, and while Wawrinka went on to win a major title, Federer has been the much more consistent performer. If Wawrinka had won on a surface other than clay — becoming the Swiss to make two major finals in 2015, leaving Federer with only one — he really would have deserved to be seen as the second-best player on the ATP Tour beyond the immediate numbers. If Wawrinka had won, he would have been able to say, “Only Djokovic owns big moments more than I do, and I certainly owned one very big moment against him in Paris.”
This match was freighted with more importance, imbued with more short-term resonance, than a lot of people appreciated. Sure, Federer wanted to make the U.S. Open final again after a six-year absence, but this was more about being able to demonstrate his prowess at any major other than Wimbledon. It was also a pursuit of the right to say, “At 34 years of age, I am still better than everyone else but Djokovic. I am not merely one of several people who has a chance, a window of opportunity.”
Paraphrasing Walter White in Breaking Bad, this match gave Federer the right to say, “I am the one who knocks! I AM THE WINDOW!”
It is counterintuitive, but it’s true: Right now, with Murray unable to beat either of the two U.S. Open men’s finalists at a major tournament (the drought is now over two years and counting), and with Nadal trying to build back his confidence and his base of fitness for 2016, there is Djokovic on top of the mountain in men’s tennis… and Federer just a slight cut below him.
Djokovic is 28 and in his prime.
The man who is not too far behind him? 34… with a larger window than any of us could have imagined when Federer left another U.S. Open — in 2013 — with the darkest clouds of his career hovering over every uncertain step he took.
Roger Federer will take the court on Sunday (weather permitting — the forecast does not look great) with history hanging in the balance. History, though, can wait. Federer took care of Wawrinka; the No. 2 debate; the non-Wimbledon major semifinal obstacle; and a host of other important short-term questions with one convincing performance on Friday night in New York.
Sunday against Djokovic is its own challenge. What should be the focus in the next 36 hours or so is how many challenges Federer has so forcefully and successfully met.
Windows 2015? They’re getting bigger for a man who continues to defy the laws of time… this time, at a place other than Wimbledon.