LONDON — Roger Federer was a point away from a rather tidy, straight-set victory in the Wimbledon quarterfinals. One lousy point.
And then, slowly, over the next two-plus hours, all the way until the fifth set reached its 24th game, as the temperature dropped and the spectators’ cries of “Let’s go, Roger!” echoed through the shadows, everything came apart for the eight-time champion. Against an opponent who’d never beaten him nor made it this far at the All England Club.
In a stunning turnaround in an unfamiliar setting — No. 1 Court instead of Centre Court — the top-seeded Federer blew a third-set match point and, eventually, all of his big lead in a 2-6, 6-7 (5), 7-5, 6-4, 13-11 loss to No. 8 Kevin Anderson on Wednesday in a 4-hour, 14-minute tussle.
“It was just one of those days where you hope to get by somehow,” said Federer, who last played at No. 1 Court in 2015. “I almost could have. I should have.”
While his tournament is over, two of his long-time rivals at the top of tennis set up a semifinal showdown: Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Nadal, who’s won two of his 17 Grand Slam titles at Wimbledon, edged 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro 7-5, 6-7 (7), 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 in a wildly entertaining match that featured diving shots by both and lasted 4 hours, 48 minutes.
Djokovic, whose 12 major championships include three from the All England Club, got to his first Grand Slam semifinal since 2016 by beating No. 24 seed Kei Nishikori 6-3, 3-6, 6-2, 6-2.
In Friday’s other men’s match, Anderson will face No. 9 John Isner, the 33-year-old American who reached his first major semifinal in his 41st try by eliminating 2016 runner-up Milos Raonic 6-7 (5), 7-6 (7), 6-4, 6-3. Isner hit 25 aces, saved the only break point he faced, and has won all 95 of his service games in the tournament.
Federer hadn’t been broken until facing Anderson. Still, the 20-time major champion was leading by two sets and 5-4 in the third when, with Anderson serving, he got to Ad-Out. He could have ended things right then and there. Federer managed to return a 134 mph serve, but on his next stroke, he shanked a backhand.
Back to deuce. From there, it all began to change. Anderson held for 5-all, broke to 6-5 with a violent return winner off a 97 mph second serve, then staved off three break points and closed the set with a 133 mph ace.
The comeback was just beginning.
“I had my chances,” Federer said, “so it’s disappointing.”
This was only the third time in Federer’s 20 years of contesting Grand Slam matches that he lost after taking the opening two sets; both of the other defeats came in 2011. And, according to the ATP, it’s the fifth time Federer lost a match at a major after holding a match point, something else that last happened seven years ago.
How hard was it to see this coming?
First of all, Federer was 4-0 against Anderson, winning every set. But there was more. So much more. Federer was attempting to reach his 13th semifinal at Wimbledon and move closer to title No. 9, both of which would have broken his own records.
He came into the match having won 32 consecutive sets at Wimbledon, a run he stretched to 34 before faltering.
“I just kept on telling myself, ‘I have to keep believing.’ I kept saying that today was going to be my day,” Anderson said, “because you really need that mindset taking the court against somebody like Roger.”
Anderson was the runner-up to Nadal at last year’s U.S. Open, but he never made it beyond the fourth round at Wimbledon until this week. He hit 28 aces against Federer, saved nine of 12 break points and managed to hold his own in the rare lengthy baseline rallies.
“It’s like that with the big servers,” Federer said. “You’re never really safe.”
As the fifth set became as much a test of mental strength as anything, from 4-all to 6-all to 8-all to 10-all, Anderson stayed steady. It was Federer who blinked, double-faulting to face a break point at 11-all, then slapping a forehand into the net.
Anderson, a 32-year-old South African who played college tennis at Illinois, served it out, ending things with a 128 mph service winner before raising both arms.
Djokovic got his wish to play in the main stadium, and he showed that he might completely be back from right elbow troubles that lasted more than a year until he finally had surgery in February.
He’s been flashing some anger this fortnight and did so again in the second set, bouncing his racket off the turf after failing to capitalize on three break points at 1-all. That earned a code violation from chair umpire Carlos Ramos. When Nishikori let his own racket fly in the fourth set, he wasn’t chastised, which prompted Djokovic to yell “double standards” toward Ramos — drawing boos from fans.
“He claims that he didn’t see what Nishikori has done, but apparently he always sees what I do,” Djokovic said afterward, “something that I don’t think is fair.”
Later, Ramos warned Djokovic for a time violation, but that didn’t seem to faze the Serb.
Soon enough, Djokovic was on his way to the semifinals, where he will meet Nadal.
“I like the level of tennis that I’m playing on right now. I really do. I think with the performances I’ve had, I deserve to be in the semifinals,” said Djokovic, whose last major title came at the 2016 French Open. “I don’t want to stop here. I hope I can get a chance to fight for a trophy.”
He’ll have to get past Nadal first.
Williams surges into women’s final
Yes, this will be Serena Williams’ 10th Wimbledon final. Yes, it’s her 30th title match at any major. And, well, sure, she’s widely regarded as not just the best of her era, but any era.
Let others shrug at this latest accomplishment, as if all it signified were merely another chance at another in a long line of trophies. Williams is not shy about saying she, for one, is impressed by this. Rightly so. For it was only about 10 months ago she was having a baby and then dealing with a serious health scare that followed.
Even after all of that, even after more than a year away from the game, even in only the fourth tournament of her comeback, Williams showed she’s still capable of dominance. Especially at the All England Club, where a relatively routine 6-2, 6-4 victory over 13th-seeded Julia Goerges of Germany on Thursday put Williams one win away from an eighth championship.
She’s also closing in on her 24th Grand Slam title, which would equal Margaret Court’s all-time record.
“A lot of people were saying, ‘Oh, she should be in the final,’” the 36-year-old Williams said. “For me it’s such a pleasure and a joy because, you know, less than a year ago, I was going through so much stuff.”
After hitting five aces with a serve that reached 119 mph, delivering 16 winners to only seven unforced errors, and covering the court so well with speed and effort, Williams will face another German, 11th-seeded Angelique Kerber, on Saturday.
“Whatever happens, honestly,” Williams said, “it’s an incredible effort from me.”
The left-handed Kerber, a former No. 1 and two-time major champion, beat 12th-seeded Jelena Ostapenko 6-3, 6-3 earlier Thursday.
“Seeing her back, it’s great,” said Kerber, who has lost six of eight previous matches against Williams. “I know that she is always pushing you to the limits.”
Kerber let 2017 French Open champion Ostapenko determine the outcome of nearly every point. By the end, Ostapenko had far more winners, 30-10, and far more unforced errors, 36-7.
Williams vs. Kerber will be a rematch of the 2016 final. Williams won that for a second consecutive Wimbledon title, then sat out the grass-court tournament last year while pregnant, part of a 16-month gap between majors.
After giving birth to daughter Olympia last September, Williams was treated for blood clots.
“I lost count after, like, four surgeries,” said Williams, who has been wearing compression leggings this fortnight as a precaution.
Her first Grand Slam tournament back was the French Open, where she won three matches before withdrawing last month because of an injured chest muscle.
All of the time away pushed someone who’s spent more than 300 weeks ranked No. 1 down the rankings — she began Wimbledon at 181st, but was seeded 25th on account of her past success — and no one could quite be sure how the American would fare over these two weeks.
Not even Williams knew.
“This is not inevitable for me. I had a really tough delivery ... and almost didn’t make it, to be honest,” Williams said. “I remember I couldn’t even walk to my mail box, so it’s definitely not ‘normal’ for me to be in a Wimbledon final.”
The victory over Goerges extended Williams’ winning streak at Wimbledon to 20 matches, dating to the start of the 2015 edition. She’s also won her past 15 Grand Slam matches since the start of the 2017 Australian Open, which she won while pregnant.
That title pushed her past Steffi Graf’s record of 22 majors in the half-century professional era; Court won some of her Slams during the amateur era.
Williams’ match against Goerges was even until 2-all, 30-all. Until then, Goerges, the first seeded player Williams faced these two weeks, showed she was capable of trading power from the baseline and big serves with Williams.
There were moments when watching Goerges made it easy to wonder how it could be possible she never had been past a major’s fourth round until now. Or, more to the point on this afternoon, how such a stinging serve and groundstrokes didn’t help her avoid first-round exits each of the past five years at Wimbledon.
But she couldn’t keep up with Williams, who grabbed 18 of 22 points and five consecutive games to close the first set and begin the next.
“She brings her ‘A game’ in a lot of important moments,” Goerges said. “We saw that she improved every single match she’s playing here.”
There was one brief blip to come: Williams got broken for the only time while serving for the match at 5-3. Immediately, though, she broke back at love to end it, placing her left fist on her chest when Goerges’ last shot landed long.
Later, Williams was asked whether this has been her most trying comeback in a career that’s had its share, including an earlier bout with blood clots in her lungs.
“I don’t know if it’s been the toughest, because I have Olympia. For me, I only see joy out of it,” Williams said with a smile. “In a way, it’s by far the toughest, but in a way it’s by far the best.”