For now, all is well in Federer land

Roger Federer

LONDON -- He has rolled through this tournament with the cool efficiency of the Swiss Federal Railway trains that connect Zurich, Lucerne and Lausanne. The calm precision of the prized Rolex, Omega and Breitling watches produced in Geneva, Biel/Bienne and Grenchen.

The joke they tell in Switzerland is that the trains are so punctual, folks set their watches to them.

Roger Federer, at 32, is very much a creature of his Basel-born environment. When he was the best tennis player in the world, he would steal ruthlessly through the Grand Slam draws on a cat-quick feet of a burglar. He won an unprecedented 16 major titles in a span of 27 events from 2003-10 and then, inevitably, he found himself past his prime.

Instead of refusing to accept anything less than his best, Federer has persevered. Admittedly, the results have not always been aesthetically pleasing. Two years ago, when he won his seventh title here at the All England Club, it was seen by some as the last stand of the greatest champion ever. Federer, however, wasn't one of them.

Even when he exited ignominiously in the second round a year ago, he knew he could do better. With improved health and a little luck in the draw, in his mind there were still possibilities.

On Sunday, Federer takes Centre Court for the men's final opposite No. 1-seeded Novak Djokovic secure in the belief he can win his record-breaking eighth Wimbledon title.

Not much has been made of it, but Federer is playing in his 59th consecutive Grand Slam, three more than the next-best total in the 46 years of the Open era.

"I never had a five-month break or anything like that," Federer said after beating Milos Raonic in a straight-sets semifinal. "I think for that you need to be, first of all, healthy physically, but also mentally ready to do it.

"You've got to love the game, because if you don't love it, then it's just going to be too hard. I think that's kept me going quite easily actually, because I know why I'm playing tennis. Deep down that's really important."

Going in, there was a consensus that Federer would need to find some fortune in the draw -- and he did.

Because Wimbledon exercises discretion in seedings, No. 3-ranked Stan Wawrinka was downgraded to the No. 5 seed, trading places with No. 5-ranked Andy Murray. The way it played out, Federer got Wawrinka -- a man he has beaten 14 of 16 times now -- in the quarterfinals. Although he dropped a set -- and his only service game of the tournament -- Federer advanced to the semifinals opposite Raonic, who has never beaten him in five tries. It could have been his nemesis, Rafael Nadal, but the No. 2-seeded Nadal was stunned in the fourth round by Australian teenager Nick Kyrgios, and Kyrgios, in turn, was beaten by Raonic.

So Federer is in the final without having to play Nadal (against whom he is 10-23) or Murray (10-11). And he has done it by compiling some extremely low mileage.

Federer has won 18 of 19 sets and averaged 1 hour, 43 minutes per match. Djokovic, meanwhile, has dropped three sets and averaged 2 hours, 31 minutes per match. This is relevant because Djokovic lost a tired final here last year when he was extended in the semifinals by Juan Martin del Potro.

"Clearly my matches have been pretty quick," Federer said. "Clearly a semi like this is a perfect result before a big match in the final."

This is their 12th meeting in a Grand Slam final and Federer holds a tenuous 6-5 lead. Interestingly, their most recent encounter came here, with Federer winning a four-set semifinal on the way to his last Grand Slam title.

"It's a good chance for me to try to win against him on his favorite surface, on his favorite court," Djokovic said after his four-set win over Grigor Dimitrov in the semifinals. "This is where he has the most success in his career, winning many titles. 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."

Almost everyone else, on the other hand, is pulling for the sentimental favorite. It will be a love-fest on Centre Court for Federer, and Djokovic knows it. He has his own motivation, of course. This is his fourth final in the past five majors -- and he has failed to win one.

The grass plays more to Federer's subtle strengths, but Djokovic has a slight edge in movement. Federer serves as well as anyone here, but Djokovic is the game's best returner.

"The key against him in the game," Djokovic said, "is trying to not allow him to dictate too much because he likes to be very aggressive, he likes to come to the net. I'm going to have to be able to get as many returns back in the court and try to also stay closer to the line, protect the baseline."

Said Federer: "We both like to be close to the baseline. We both like to take charge, especially on quicker courts. He has a wonderful way of either redirecting or taking the ball early, taking pace from the opponent, even generating some of his own.

"I think that's what makes him so hard to play. There's not really a safe place you can play into. Novak can hurt you down the line or cross-court on both sides."

Andy Murray's victory here a year ago ended a 77-year-old drought for a British male champion, but a victory Sunday would make history of a more ancient kind. This is the 128th edition of Wimbledon, and only three men have won it seven times -- Federer, Pete Sampras and, in the 1880s, William Renshaw.

Federer would be the oldest Wimbledon champion of the Open era. Unlike all the skeptics and the cynics watching from afar, he will be surprised if he doesn't win.

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