Tennis

Stars align for Federer's last great run

Roger Federer last won Wimbledon in 2009.
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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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WIMBLEDON, England

Everyone deserves one last run, and this is Roger Federer’s. The gods and the weather and the schedule and even Wimbledon’s Centre Court roof have lined up for him. The opponents have all-but fallen down, and the guy he can’t beat, Rafael Nadal, cleared out early by losing to a nobody.

It’s the right time and the right place, and now Federer is giving his career the right tribute. He beat No. 1 ranked Novak Djokovic 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 Friday to advance to the Wimbledon final.

“Obviously, I’m ecstatic, and so happy,’’ Federer said as he left the court. “I played a great match today. I was able to maybe step it up, get a little lucky maybe.’’

Yes, both. Skill, luck. Magic, too. This is what happens sometimes when these superstars have another run. They wring out another moment.

If he wins Sunday – where he’ll play the winner of Friday’s other semifinal between Andy Murray and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga – then Federer will move back to No. 1, and catch, then pass, Pete Sampras’ all-time record for most weeks in the top spot. He has been stuck cruelly one week short of Sampras for so long.

“I know it’s possible,’’ Federer said the other day. “I know I’m playing really well.’’

He has said things like that for the past two years, but it’s doubtful that he has truly believed. At least lately. You can only stay in denial for so long. But now, Federer has seen the proof again and doesn’t have to convince himself.

Federer is about to turn 31, and hasn’t won a major in 2½ years. The truth is, not only has Nadal passed him as a player, but so has Djokovic. Federer won the 2010 Australian Open, and it seemed so dominant, so easy. He had reached 18 of the past 19 major finals.

Since then, he had reached just one major final, a loss to Nadal at the 2011 French Open. It’s amazing how these things just end.

Federer didn’t play well at the French Open a few weeks ago, either, but still managed to stretch his streak of reaching the quarterfinals in majors. It’s up to 33 in a row now, covering more than eight years. But the reason his string measures quarterfinals now is because his string of semifinals was stopped.

On top of that, Federer stubbornly continues to use an old-fashioned racquet from at least 10 years ago that doesn’t take into account modern technology.

There was no actual, logical way to predict that Federer would beat Djokovic, the defending Wimbledon champ, Friday. He had been losing to Djokovic consistently.

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But sometimes these last runs take on their own power. Players are not defined by them, but instead these runs are defined by the player.

Jimmy Connors, already old, managed one, loud run through to the US Open semis. Somehow, he didn’t have to beat one top 10 player to get there, and the guys he beat in the fourth round and the quarters weren’t even ranked in the top 40. Against Aaron Krickstein in a match that would get to a fifth-set tiebreaker, Connors got away with outrageous showmanship that actually ended his friendship with Krickstein.

While Connors played for another year or so, that was his final run, a perfect, last example of him.

Andre Agassi, too beaten up with a bad back to run down another Open, got to the finals before losing to Federer. The gods opened up the schedule for him so well that he didn’t have to beat anyone in the top 30.

Bjorn Borg was fine with a quiet farewell, slipping out before the awards ceremony after losing to John McEnroe in the US Open final, and going for a swim without saying goodbye. Quiet throughout his career, quiet in the end.

McEnroe reached a Wimbledon semifinal before losing to Agassi. I guess that was his last run. But two years earlier at the Australian Open, he started playing well again improbably before getting kicked out mid-match for his behavior.

Pete Sampras had not swung strongly over the top of a backhand in two years, and was finished. Then, he found it again for a last run, crushing young Andy Roddick in what was supposed to be a torch-passing. Sampras won another US Open, beating Agassi. It was the moment he defined. Then, he retired.

Perfect. It was exactly the way his career should have ended. And Agassi’s. And Connors’. And Borg’s, too. The last run mirrored their careers. It doesn’t have to be their final time on court, just their final, late, last push of greatness.

Federer’s last run can only end one way: with a major victory, and at No. 1. That’s what his whole career has been about. This would be his seventh Wimbledon title, and it would stretch his record of major titles to 17.

You know, in the fourth-round match, Federer hurt his back again. But then he had such an easy time in the quarterfinals, setting him up as well as possible for Djokovic.

"I wasn't nervous at all today before the match,'' Federer said. "I was almost a bit surprised I wasn't more nervous. But then again, I think that's good sometimes. That means I'm in a good place mentally.''

His serve was great Friday, especially his second serve. For some reason – the gods? – Djokovic lacked energy throughout. In fact, I watched him work 20 minutes on the practice courts Thursday on one thing: a shot that would come off Federer’s forehand, down the line to Djokovic’s running backhand. He was pounding them in practice.

In the match, he couldn’t get that shot on the court. The crucial moment came with the match at one set all, and Djokovic serving 4-5, 15-30. He missed an easy overhead, giving Federer two break points for the set.

Just one little moment like that, and Federer, like Federer of old, jumped on it. He rolled through the fourth set.

Wimbledon has been that easy for him, with little pressure. His career has defined this moment. He deserves it.

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