WIMBLEDON, England — Many of Roger Federer’s former rivals and opponents now have different roles in tennis.
They are coaches, like Ivan Ljubicic, working with Milos Raonic. They are commentators, like Andy Roddick, who interviewed Federer at Wimbledon this year for the BBC.
Sometimes younger, usually creakier in the back or the legs, they are perhaps the best reminder of how remarkable it is that Federer, on the cusp of his 34th birthday, can still play the sublime brand of tennis he conjured on Friday in the semifinals against Andy Murray.
“From the beginning, from the first match here this year, I said, ‘Ooh, Roger’s dancing again,’ ” Ljubicic said. “You don’t see him being heavy on his legs, and when he has that, the whole game just comes around. I’m sure the final is going to be impressive. If he’s going to win, who knows? But we are going to see great points. Of that I am certain.”
It is easy to share Ljubicic’s vision. Novak Djokovic is in his prime. Federer, who looked much more his age a couple of seasons ago on court, is back, doing a fine impression of peak Federer.
“Roger loves tennis; he still has the motivation, which is clearly important,” said Stefan Edberg, his coach. “He’s found a new way of improving his game, and I think that’s a key factor, a little different way of playing with a new racket in his hands. I think that has made the change.”
Federer’s numbers against a highly motivated Murray were extraordinary in light of Murray’s returning prowess: 20 aces in three sets, 76 percent first-serve percentage, 84 percent of those points won and, most important, no break of serve allowed.
“Definitely it was one of my best serving days of my career for sure,” Federer said.
It hardly came out of nowhere. He has been broken only once in his last two tournaments, and that break came against Gilles Simon here in an otherwise uneventful quarterfinal.
“I don’t know how many times in the match he missed two first serves in a row, but it wasn’t very often,” Murray said. “Tough to gain much momentum that way. I’ll have to think about it, because maybe I could have returned better. But I don’t know. It did feel like he served extremely close to the lines today.”
Onward to Sunday’s final, which will be a rematch of last year’s final. That one turned out to be the match of the year, with Djokovic winning in five sets after failing to shut Federer down in four.
At the time, that was widely and wistfully viewed as Federer’s last great chance at an 18th Grand Slam singles title and a record eighth Wimbledon singles title.
But one year later, here comes another chance.
It will be No. 1 (Djokovic) vs. No. 2 (Federer) in what remains one of the great rivalries in the history of men’s tennis. This will be their 40th encounter. Federer leads by 20-19, and they have split their last eight matches.
But their Grand Slam meetings remain rare. This will be only their third in three years, and all have come at Wimbledon, the anachronistic yet still essential tennis place that both men hold dearest, but where Federer has held court the longest.
“We all know how good he is,” Djokovic said. “He’s the greatest ever. There’s not enough praises for what he does, but this is where he loves to play. This is where he plays his best tennis, I think.”
As it was last year, this will be a duel across generations. Boris Becker remains one of Djokovic’s coaches. Edberg continues to help coach Federer. And while last year was the 25th anniversary of Becker’s Wimbledon victory over Edberg in 1989, this year is the 25th anniversary of Edberg’s victory over Becker in 1990.
“It’s a vintage year,” Edberg said Friday, still looking fit enough to serve and volley at age 49. “To be honest, I’m not a person who looks in the past too much. You can learn from the past, but I’m more the one looking to the future. This is another great opportunity for Roger, to be in another Wimbledon final, and I believe the way he’s playing, he’s definitely got a chance.”
Tennis plot lines can shift quickly this time of year. A few weeks ago, it appeared Djokovic had a serious chance of rolling to the Grand Slam, but that was before Stan Wawrinka beat him (and Federer) in the French Open.
Now, with Federer’s extraordinary level of play at the All England Club, Djokovic just might lose Wimbledon, too.
“It’s a 50-50 match no matter what,” said Ljubicic, the former No. 3 player in the world who has been hitting with Federer some at Wimbledon this year. “If you compare Murray and Novak, what are Murray’s weaknesses? Second serve. Novak has that covered. Murray is sometimes too defensive. Novak is not, so Novak is going to really squeeze that gap, and he’s going to push Roger to be even better than today. That’s why I think we’re going to have a fantastic final.”
Djokovic has said that Federer and Rafael Nadal forced him to toughen up his game; maximize his strengths; shore up his weaknesses, think creatively. The challenge that Djokovic poses has certainly kept the game interesting for Federer, as well.
“He’s become very match tough; he always shows up; it’s tough to beat him,” Federer said. “You know, he’s been very injury free. He’s been good for the game.”
But Federer was playing down the mano a mano Friday, emphasizing instead the internal process and rewards.
“The rivalry part is really not that important to me,” he said. “It’s only to have that feeling of victory at Wimbledon and on the grass. It’s why I still play tennis, and I’m happy that I gave myself this opportunity on Sunday.”
He is hardly alone in taking pleasure in it. Even against Murray, there was plenty of popular support for Federer and his flourishes (see astounding backhand flick pass in the final game). With Murray eliminated, the Centre Court crowd should be strongly in Federer’s favor during the final.
“People might not know how many more opportunities I’m going to have,” Federer said when asked about the support he had received against Murray. “So they’re going to be emotionally attached to me maybe more as well, as they were to Andre Agassi at the end of his career and other players. Of course I appreciate that.”
He has earned it with his enduring excellence and enduring flair. Those who first played him long ago certainly respect the journey.
“I still sometimes wake up in the night and have nightmares about our matches,” Ljubicic said, his family in tow. “Today was a reminder of what he was in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007. This was him at his best tennis. This is what people buy tickets for and what people want to see: the ability to win points in a hundred different ways.”
In light of Djokovic’s manifold tennis gifts and experience under pressure, 100 different ways might be required on Sunday.