The dream of having Canadians competing in both the men’s and women’s finals at Wimbledon crashed Friday into a reality named Roger Federer.
Federer, a seven-time Wimbledon champion, ended a marvellous run here by Milos Raonic of Thornhill, Ont. with a clinical three-set win to set up a tantalizing men’s final between the veteran Swiss star and top-seeded Novak Djokovic of Serbia on Sunday.
On Saturday, Eugenie Bouchard of Westmount, Que., will become the first Canadian to contest a singles Grand Slam in the Open era when she battles Czech star Petra Kvitova. The match starts at 9 a.m. (ET).
In a tournament that will be remembered for its upsets and upstarts, Federer and Djokovic restored a little of the established order in the men’s draw with their wins on Friday. Federer bested the eighth-seeded Raonic 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 in just more than 100 minutes, while Djokovic took four sets and three hours to defeat Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov, who had knocked out 2013 Wimbledon champ Andy Murray in the quarter-finals.
Raonic lost on a cool and sunny day in southwest London, but remains a player very much on the rise. His appearance in the semi-final – another Grand Slam first by a Canadian male – follows his June run to the quarter-finals of the French Open, where he lost to Djokovic but earned his hard-hitting rival’s praise. Djokovic said Raonic now possesses the best and hardest serve in tennis.
When Raonic connected with his big serve – which was regularly clocked Friday at 138 miles an hour – the usually staid audience at Wimbledon found itself chuckling in sympathy with the legendary Federer and his unenviable task of trying to return it.
But when Raonic missed on his first serve, he was forced to slow down his second effort to avoid a double-fault. That put the game on Federer’s terms, and soon his tactical baseline volleys were the swings drawing oohs of appreciation.
In each set, Raonic missed just often enough to let Federer break his serve once. That was all the methodical Swiss needed. When it was Federer’s turn to serve, he made few mistakes.
Aided by a Raonic double-fault, Federer broke the big Canadian’s serve in the first game of the match, establishing a quick pace that had Federer out to a 2-0 lead before the contest was more than a few minutes old. “Normally I start off serving much better… he came up with the right shots pretty much every single time,” Raonic said after the game.
Raonic appeared rattled by the early setback, and struggled to find his rhythm before eventually calming down and gaining control of his serve. When he did, it was overpowering, with Federer struggling to simply get a racket on many of the bullets Raonic sent his way. Raonic smashed 36 aces during the match, some of them not only handcuffing Federer, but sending Wimbledon’s normal impassive line judges scrambling to avoid a bruise.
But the early pattern would hold throughout. Raonic would look dominant with his serve, and then he would suddenly and briefly lose the range – long enough for Federer to steal a single game in each set. That was all he needed; when it was his turn to serve, Federer gave Raonic no openings to capitalize on.
Federer’s own 110-to-120 mile-an-hour serves looked like lobbed offerings compared to the heat-seeking missiles coming off Raonic’s racket, but they were effective at forcing the big Canadian to play a running game that worked to the nimble Federer’s advantage. Federer’s service games were serve-and-volley clinics, frequently leaving Raonic with nothing to do but watch as the 32-year-old Swiss repeatedly played the ball to corners his younger opponent could not hope to reach.
Federer, who first won at Wimbledon in 2003, remains a crowd favourite here. Facing a break point late in the first set, the crowd called for him to rally, and he responded, quickly winning the next three points, including two aces. It was the only time Raonic truly threatened to make a prolonged battle out of it.
“I’m quite disappointed with the level I was able to put up. I know I can do much better,” Raonic said. “I believe I can put myself in the same situation [Grand Slam semi-finals] again. The worst would be to have the same feeling after.”
Raonic’s road to the Wimbledon final four has been a tougher slog than Bouchard’s. While the golden-haired Montrealer has hopped from triumph to triumph in her short career, winning the junior Wimbledon title as an 18-year-old, then being named Women’s Tennis Association Newcomer of the Year in her first professional season. The 23-year-old Raonic, who was born in Macedonia and raised in Thornhill, Ont., has had to scratch and claw his way up a very competitive men’s rankings ladder.
Raonic was a second-round casualty in his own stab at a junior Wimbledon title in 2008, and began his professional career as a wild-card entry into a succession of Tennis Canada events. He didn’t win, but made waves with his big serve and raw potential.
The 6-foot-5 Raonic’s breakthrough finally came in 2011, when he caught eyes while proceeding to the fourth round of the Australian Open. Though he eventually lost to seventh-seeded David Ferrer, Raonic was praised by the likes of John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova as one of the sport’s rising stars. Two weeks later, he won his first professional tournament, the SAP Open, in San Jose, and shot up the rankings to No. 37, the highest placement ever for a Canadian male.
But Grand Slam success eluded Raonic until this year. He was ranked No. 9 in the world following his quarter-final appearance in the French Open. After his success at Wimbledon, he’s projected to rise to No. 6.
There will be a second Canadian playing for a trophy at Wimbledon on Saturday as Vasek Pospisil of Vancouver and his partner, Jack Sock of the United States, advanced Friday to the men’s doubles final. They’ll play the defending champions Bob and Mike Bryan of the U.S.
Toronto’s Daniel Nestor has shared the doubles crown at Wimbledon twice, in 2008 and 2009. He’s won the mixed doubles crown last year with partner Kristina Mladenovic of France. Seeking to repeat, Nestor and Mladenovic advanced Friday to the semi-final.