Roger Federer is a savage man when he is in the mood. He hides it well with the easy charm, the sense that one day he may turn up on court wearing a top hat made out of solid gold, the lulling elegance that gently puts his opponents to sleep. It is a winning combination that helps to explain why they prefer not to see him pushed too hard on Centre Court, why there were a few shocked gasps and worried whispers when it fleetingly seemed Federer might fluff his lines on an agreeably mild evening at Wimbledon.
A crowd lusting for even more Roger, one more glimpse of that single-handed backhand before the curtain falls on the best and most exclusive show in town, obviously got what they wanted in the end: another Federer win, another Federer final. For a while the valiant, doomed Tomas Berdych dared to tear up the script. But eventually the Czech had to be content with the role of comedy sidekick, whose job is to accept that stepping on court with this company means playing in front of an audience eagerly waiting for the moment when your pants are pulled over your head.
Admittedly the 7-6 (4), 7-6 (4), 6-4 victory that secured Federer’s place in the final against Marin Cilic was not as serene as many had anticipated. Berdych was an imposing but predictable threat, a power player whose thudding serves and booming forehands ensured that this was not an entirely smooth ride. After squeezing past Sam Querrey, Cilic will have noticed how Berdych’s flat hitting unsettled Federer and the Croat will believe he has enough variety to disrupt Sunday afternoon’s coronation.
Yet for all that his performance was not without flaws, betting against Federer claiming a historic eighth Wimbledon title would be a brave move. There were a couple of double-faults, a few shanks, some nervy service games, but ultimately this was a continuation of his astonishing resurgence this year, which has been both a triumph of longevity and a strong argument for the benefits of listening to your body.
This was the first time since 2005 that only one member of the Big Four had reached the last four at Wimbledon. It was Federer then; it is Federer now. It is also the first time since the 2009 US Open that none of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal or Andy Murray blocks his path in a grand slam final.
Federer’s 2017 revival has been a rebellion against the idea there is no choice but to submit to the tour’s relentless grind. After six months out with a knee injury, the 35-year-old returned better than ever to win his 18th major in Melbourne, beating Nadal in a classic final before deciding to skip the French Open in order to protect his grass genius. Djokovic and Murray exited here on Wednesday as their bodies buckled under the strain.
He has still to drop a set and it was hard not to feel for Berdych, a former world No4 who once beat Federer at Wimbledon, only to lose to Nadal in the final. It is Berdych’s misfortune to compete in such a competitive era.
When these two met in the third round of the Australian Open in January, it turned into one of the great humiliations. Yet this was more even than Federer’s quarter-final thrashing of Milos Raonic, when he delighted in torturing the man who beat him last year, that gentlemanly air masking his ruthless streak, and Berdych often gave the impression that there is only so much embarrassment one man can take. Trailing by an early break, a gorgeous drop volley from Federer was met with the kind of smug chuckle that compelled Berdych to respond.
There were a few winces when a double-fault allowed Berdych, who mysteriously had Djokovic’s face on his trainers, to cancel out an early break. First Andy, then Jo, and now Roger? Surely not.
Yet Berdych was not allowed to convert an assortment of chances and a woozy sense of contentment spread across the ground when Federer summoned a couple of gorgeous forehands to take the second tie-break.
Cilic thumped Federer on the way to winning the US Open in 2014 and he will be a tricky adversary but Federer glides into the second Sunday for the 11th time in his gilded career, primed to make Centre Court convulse with joy again.