Just those two words. I found them on the Facebook wall of a longtime friend and an unabashed Federer fan after he lost to Milos Raonic 6-3, 6-7, 4-6, 7-5, 6-3 in a humdinger of a battle on the Centre court on Friday. Playing desperate catch up with Raonic all through, the lasting image of the match came in the fifth set with Federer throwing himself to reach out for the passing shot, only to lie flat on the turf, accentuating worries about his operated knee and pretty much sealing the fate of the match. He did wake up to fight another point, but could not fight back hard enough to live another day. His fourteenth semifinal appearance at Wimbledon turned out to the first time he couldn’t advance further.
Coming to the court with a back from the brink triumph against Cilic, Federer was a clear favorite to advance to the finals. He was pitted against the fresh faced, big serving Raonic who started the match on a strong note. Packing a punch in both his serves, Raonic tested the reflexes and solidness of Fed’s return game. Coming into the game after a five-setter, Fed was taking longer than usual to find his range and rhythm. He was slower of the two with his return ballooning when he was stretched to the corners. As against that, inspired by being where he was and determined to make it count Raonic seemed to have elevated his game. The moment he found his first break point, Raonic lapped it up to go one up.
What Federer lacked in intensity, he made up for it with his experience. Sacrificing the stylish and the strategic for the tactical and practical, Federer cut-out chances of conceding break-points and waited for Raonic to crumble under the pressure. A Raonic double fault in the middle of a tie-breaker offered Fed an opportunity to square level. He wasn’t going to miss it. He had presented a masterful lesson in conceding soft battles to win a war.
Buoyed by the equalizer and egged on by the crowd, Fed found his groove in the third set and exploited the drop in concentration of his younger rival. In contrast to the first two games, Raonic was now playing catch up and was increasingly looking vulnerable. His gamble of giving it all on his second serve seemed to be backfiring. Sensing the change in momentum Federer had started pressing the pedal on the title in the fourth set. He was serving sharply and creating more chances than Raonic.
The experience of Federer was winning over the youth, exuberance, and skill of his opponent until the scoreboard read 15-40 in the ninth game with Raonic on the serve. Federer had two break points and only needed to hold his serve in the next game to advance into the finals. That is when Federer did a Cilic on himself by blowing up his chances and handing Raonic an escape route. As if to have found a new lease of life Raonic then upped the tempo on the Fed serve and came up with sensational returns to put the pressure back, forcing Federer to commit a rare sequence of double-double faults.
The youngster had showed remarkable tenacity and mental composure to stay in the game. Through the four sets it never appeared that Raonic was overawed by the occasion or was under the spell of his celebrated opponent. In fact his overall court play was better than Federer’s and he had won more points rushing to the net than Fed. It had clearly rattled Federer and it had now started to show on Federer’s brooding visage. The thought of having to play the final set against someone with fresher legs and a fitter body, someone who had stayed largely mentally focused, with serves fired at your body- it was going to be an uphill task for Federer.
In the end it wasn’t to be. Once Fed conceded an early break in the fifth set, the match was only going one way. His full bodied tumble on the court trying to return a low passing shot spoke more of desperation than a realistic chance of wresting the control. It was now firmly in the hands of an iron-fisted Raonic who clearly was the better of the two players on show on Friday.
The eighth championship had eluded him, much like it did for the last two editions. This time however he wasn’t playing the finals, he wasn’t playing Djokovic either. Sometimes as fans we gloss over the practicalities and get entangled into romanticised narratives. We had written off Milos even before he had taken court.
Alas sport is not like theatre. You can define the characters much the way you like, but you can’t pre conceive the script.
Minutes before noon in Canada, a rising star is coming into his bloom, demanding his right on the reigns. Minutes before sunset in Switzerland, a legend has slowly walked out of the centre court, leaving a rich legacy behind. It is this at fine moment, life turns a page. So does the sporting history. As for the fans, the wait continues. Master has promised to come back.