For several years now, a trickle of promising young players have bubbled up, threatened to erode the top layer of men's tennis, and receded again. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have held firm, allowing room only for Novak Djokovic, then for Andy Murray. (How Roger Federer beat Milos Raonic to set up title clash vs Djokovic)
Only twice in the past 37 Grand Slam tournaments, going back more than nine years, has someone outside that Big Four won a title: Stan Wawrinka at this year's Australian Open and Juan Martin del Potro at the 2009 U.S. Open. No place, however, surrenders to tradition as reluctantly as Wimbledon, where one of the Big Four has won the past 11 times. It will be a 12th come Sunday, when Djokovic and Federer meet at Centre Court.
On a warm and windy Friday, Djokovic and Federer were presented with two more contenders, a pair of 23-year-olds rising through the rankings.
Djokovic, a Serbian seeded No. 1, beat back the first challenger, No. 11 Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria, to reach Wimbledon's final for the second year in a row. The rollicking 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (7) victory tightened as it went, not secured until after Djokovic reversed three set points and clinched the match with a charging, cross-court forehand that tipped the net and stayed in.
Federer, the Swiss seven-time Wimbledon champion who is seeded fourth, then coolly deconstructed the hard-serving game of No. 8 Milos Raonic of Canada, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4. It felt like a clinic, devoid of emotion or drama, lasting only 101 minutes.
Djokovic and Federer will meet in a Grand Slam final for the first time since the 2007 U.S. Open. Federer, 32, owns an 18-16 career record against the 27-year-old Djokovic, winning two of their three meetings this season.
"This is where he has the most success in his career, winning many titles," Djokovic said of Federer, who has 17 Grand Slam titles overall. "He's been looking very good throughout the whole tournament, very dominant with his matches. I'm sure that he wants to win this title as much as I do."
Djokovic, who has six major titles, won Wimbledon in 2011. Federer won in 2012, the last time he was in a Grand Slam final. Djokovic reached the Wimbledon final in 2013 but lost to Murray in an emotional straight-set coronation for the British champion.
On Thursday, Dimitrov beat Murray in a straight-set quarterfinal, lifting himself to the precipice of his first Grand Slam final. Dimitrov has long been compared to Federer, with his fluid, all-around play.
"The younger guys, we want to come on that stage," Dimitrov said after beating Murray. "We strive for this. I think we're thirsty for that. We want to prove ourselves. We also want to prove to the big guys that we're around the corner."
The early sets of Friday's first semifinal were mostly played on the slippery baseline, where the grass was worn away, but the surface shrank and the points stretched as the match deepened. Once Dimitrov pulled himself back into the match by taking the second set, he looked every bit Djokovic's equal.
"I made some unforced errors and gave my opponent today a hope that he can win the match," Djokovic said. "That's something that I definitely cannot allow myself in the finals against Roger."
But Dimitrov's game crumbled at inopportune moments. Tied at a set apiece and facing a momentum-changing tiebreaker, Djokovic stiffened. He won seven of the nine points, including a crucial one on a double fault by Dimitrov.
Dimitrov double-faulted three times in a row early in the fourth to lose serve. But with youthful resilience, he immediately broke back and soon pushed Djokovic to set point, threatening to carry the match to a fifth stanza with a scrambling drop shot.
Djokovic steadied again. He won the next three points and tied the set, 5-5, steering the set toward another tiebreaker.
In the final tiebreaker, Dimitrov took a 6-3 lead to reach set point. Djokovic then won four points in a row, one on another Dimitrov double fault, to earn a match point. Dimitrov beat it back by squeezing a shot past Djokovic on a surprising serve-and-volley attempt. Dimitrov lost the next point as he slid into the splits chasing a Djokovic forehand.
Both players were scrambling toward the net on the match's final point. It ended when Djokovic tipped a shot off the net and just inside the line.
"You never know what would have happened if I had taken that fourth set," Dimitrov said.
Fans had barely settled back into their seats by the time Federer had taken control of his match with Raonic. Federer remains a favorite among Wimbledon fans, who have to wonder how many more times they will see him in contention. A year ago, Federer lost in the second round, part of a yearlong struggle that had many wondering if his career would end in a slow demise unbecoming of his graceful, decade-long domination.
An eighth Wimbledon title would unlock Federer from Pete Sampras and William Renshaw atop the list for most in men's singles. And an 18th Grand Slam title would extend a men's record he already owns. Federer has shown no intention of slowing down.
"You've got to love the game, because if you don't love it, then it's just going to be too hard," Federer said. "I think that's kept me going quite easily, actually, because I know why I'm playing tennis. Deep down, that's really important."
Federer volleyed a question about the Big Four - "It was always going to be hard to get rid of all four guys at the same time, let's just be honest," he said - but seemed pleased that his opponent will be Djokovic.
"I must say I've enjoyed the matches against him," Federer said, adding: "It's been a cool rivalry."
Federer worried about Raonic, knowing he would have few chances to break one of the great servers in the game. He also knew that when serves are returned to Raonic's dominant forehead, he wins about two-thirds of the points. When forced to hit a backhand, his success rate on the point falls below 50 percent.
Federer found just enough comfort to break Raonic, whose serves reached 139 mph, once in each set to cruise to victory. He also displayed his re-emergent serve-and-volley game, a style he had slowly abandoned since using it to great effect early in his career.
It was, strangely, a Federer reminiscent of 11 years ago, when he won his first Wimbledon title. That was also the start of an era that no one could have predicted at the time - four men dominating the Grand Slams, turning back virtually all who ventured close to a title themselves.
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