LONDON -- After a 24-hour period of tremors and scares for the Big Four of men's tennis, the man who emerged with the least damage is the founding member of the sport's leading band: Roger Federer.
Rafael Nadal exited in four sets against a teenage wild card Tuesday evening. Defending champion Andy Murray didn't even get to a fourth set in his loss to Grigor Dimitrov on Wednesday afternoon. Novak Djokovic slipped and fell often on his way to falling behind two sets to one against Marin Cilic later Wednesday before righting himself to close out the Croatian in five.
Federer wasn't immune to the dangers. He lost his serve and the first set of his quarterfinal against Stan Wawrinka on Centre Court. But he rebounded to take the next three sets, gaining confidence and precision as the match wore on, to reach his ninth Wimbledon semifinal. Federer outclassed a dangerous opponent in defending Aussie champ Wawrinka, the third-ranked player in the world who was undefeated in six prior matches against top-10 players this year.
Federer will bring an 8-0 record in Wimbledon semis into his Friday encounter against Milos Raonic, who is making his first final appearance in any major. Federer has dropped just one set this fortnight. With no Nadal or Murray in his path and Djokovic looking vulnerable, Federer might just be the favorite to win his eighth Wimbledon title and 18th Grand Slam title.
Earlier on Wednesday, five former Australian greats held a news conference touting Nick Kyrgios, Nadal's conqueror Tuesday, as the future of tennis. Federer, who is nearly 14 years older than Kyrgios, beat Wawrinka playing a throwback style that would have pleased Rod Laver & Co., not to mention Federer's coach, the great volleyer Stefan Edberg.
Federer charged the net, often behind low, deep slices, and won 71 percent of his forays forward. He threw in a wide variety of first and second serves, often flummoxing Wawrinka with placement and spin more than speed. He used the short slice to summon crucial errors from his opponent. He took the ball on the rise at the baseline, often essentially half-volleying Wawrinka's booming shots. He clinched the second and third sets by serving and volleying on set point each time.
Federer showed that his tennis tactics remain effective and relevant on Wimbledon's lawns, even at this stage when the baseline grass has died and left only dirt behind.
For most of the first two sets, Wawrinka matched Federer blow for blow. Wawrinka this year has been at his most dangerous in the biggest matches against the best players. Despite his poor Wimbledon record before this year, he looked worthy of being the top-ranked Swiss man by getting the better of Federer early in baseline exchanges from both wings. He often took the net away from Federer by charging forward before his opponent could, earning lots of easy points by approaching to Federer's backhand.
Wawrinka's strong start took its toll. It "cost me a lot of energy at the beginning of the match to play that level," he said.
Wawrinka kept swinging fearlessly to the very end, starting both the penultimate game and the final game with forehand winners. He fought off four match points in the final game. He showed why many consider his backhand to be the world's best.
"I was able to focus well and play as good as Stan allowed me to play, because he was playing really well right out of the gates," Federer said. "He came out and was crushing the ball, forehand and backhand and even serve, so it was very difficult for me."
But it was Federer, three and a half years Wawrinka's senior, who improved as the match went on. Wawrinka kept swinging freely but started missing while Federer found his range, finishing with 46 winners and 14 unforced errors. After struggling to get to short balls earlier in the match, Federer surged forward in the middle of the fourth set to flip a forehand past Wawrinka at the net. On his fifth match point, he leaped to smash away an overhead winner. Then the two friends and Davis Cup teammates embraced at the net as fans in a packed Centre Court cheered in approval for their new favorite male contender, now that Murray's tournament was over.
It was Federer's second match in two days in which his first shaky service game of the final set came in its final game. He may have reason to feel nervous on the brink of another win; many analysts think this tournament represents his last strong chance to win an 18th major title. If he keeps playing like he did Wednesday against an inspired and dangerous opponent, Federer has an excellent chance to pull it off.
"I know there's pressure, but the confidence is there," Federer said. "You know there is a chance now to go a step further because you trust your game. That's where I am right now. I'm really excited about the next couple days now."
Asked if Federer would win it all, Wawrinka replied, "I hope so, but we'll see on Sunday."