Roger Federer is three sets away from his 18th Grand Slam title after dispatching Milos Raonic, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4, in the 2014 Wimbledon men's semifinal.
This is only Federer's second trip to a final at the All England Club in the last five years. That's a genuine drought for somebody who won the title six times between 2003 and 2009.
Ever since his win at Wimbledon in 2012, most fans have questioned whether he might have one more title run left in the tank. Invariably, the answer has been no. Tennis is such an unforgiving sport that the game's elite looked to have already passed him by, even at the age of 32. ESPN Stats and Information passed along a note regarding how unlikely it is for someone his age to make a Grand Slam final:
Roger Federer advances to 9th career Wimbledon final (most all-time). At 32, he's oldest GS finalist since Andre Agassi (2005 US Open).— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) July 4, 2014
When Federer was bounced in the second round of last year's tournament, many assumed that was the death knell for his Grand Slam hopes.
Yet, here he is, one match away from yet another title. Leigh Ellis of NBA.tv's The Starters made the perfect sports parallel:
Roger Federer is the Tim Duncan of tennis.— Leigh Ellis (@LeighEllis) July 4, 2014
"I don't want to get too far ahead of myself, but I'm back strong this year," Federer said before the semifinal, per ESPN.co.uk. "Last year was such a disappointment. I always try to win it and last year I didn't even come close. I was very deflated leaving on that note. It's good to be back in the semis, the prospect of going a step or two further is very exciting."
Right from the outset, Raonic looked to be suffering from a bit of nerves. The deepest he'd ever been in a Grand Slam tournament before Wimbledon was his quarterfinal finish at this year's French Open. Playing Federer on the grass of Centre Court in the semifinals is a completely different beast.
Federer immediately broke Raonic in the first game of the match:
Before you can even take a sip of water, Roger Federer breaks Milos Raonic to start the match.— SI Tennis (@SI_Tennis) July 4, 2014
Short of picking up an injury, losing serve was about the worst possible way to start the semifinal. That immediately swung the advantage toward Federer before he even had a chance to serve.
It was the opening that the Swiss player needed to take the first set, riding what's been a brilliant serve all tournament, per ESPN Tennis:
The good news for Raonic was that he quickly regained his composure after his early hiccup. Slowly but surely, the 23-year-old worked his way back into the match. Despite failing to break Federer's serve and dropping the first set, 6-4, he was showing plenty of positive signs.
As Adjusting the Net's Erik Gudris noted, Raonic's early-set jitters were nowhere to be seen:
Federer takes 1st 64. Raonic though looking settled in now. #Wimbledon2014— Erik Gudris (@ATNtennis) July 4, 2014
The second set was much better for Raonic, but he still had trouble figuring out Federer's serve. Fed remained his robotic best, surgically dissecting his opponent from the baseline with his beautiful backhand. This was vintage Roger Federer.
ESPN's Brad Gilbert also felt that the somewhat windy conditions inside Centre Court were having their way with Raonic:
The Wind will affect Missile Raonic a lot more big swings and struggles with his return game a lot— Brad Gilbert (@bgtennisnation) July 4, 2014
The two exchanged serve until the ninth game of the second set.
Raonic didn't help himself by double-faulting on the first point to go down 0-15. One Federer backhand winner and one Raonic unforced error later, the seven-time Wimbledon champion had three break points. Another backhand down the line gave him the game and a 5-4 second-set lead.
Federer held serve in the next game to take a two-set lead, 6-4, 6-4:
Federer holds to clinch the set 6-4. He leads Raonic two sets to love. Watch live coverage of the 3rd set on ESPN. pic.twitter.com/OiuaYfJfIg— ESPNTennis (@ESPNTennis) July 4, 2014
With a lead like that, the only drama left was whether Federer would win it in straight sets or get pushed to a fourth.
You have to feel for Raonic a bit, because he was caught in his own personal version of Groundhog Day. For the third set in a row, he performed well but not well enough to gain any sort of foothold. And yet again, a service break was his ultimate undoing, with Federer grabbing a 5-4 advantage.
And he wasn't going to drop serve with the win within reach.
Wimbledon tweeted out a brief statistical breakdown of the match. Note the difference between Federer and Raonic on second serve:
Federer will meet Novak Djokovic in the final after the 2011 champion beat Grigor Dimitrov earlier in the day, thus giving the sport a "Big Four" battle that has become the norm. Although it's fun watching new challengers break through the glass ceiling, Federer, Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray are unquestionably the most popular players on tour.
When any combination of the four meets in a Grand Slam final, it makes for compelling television. Sunday's final has the potential to be the next entry in what's been a fantastic rivalry.
These two have met 34 times, with Federer owning a slight edge at 18-16. Federer's won two of their three head-to-head matchups in 2014. Only once have they played against one another at Wimbledon, in the 2012 semifinal.
Somewhat surprisingly, this is just the second time Federer and Djokovic have met in a Grand Slam final, per Carole Bouchard of L'Equipe:
Last ond only time Federer and Djokovic battled for a GS title was US Open 2007. They've been the semis rivals since then. Crazy.— Carole Bouchard (@carole_bouchard) July 4, 2014
Djokovic will enter the final as the favorite, but if Federer plays like how he did on Friday afternoon, he will be a very real threat for the No. 2 player in the world.