WIMBLEDON, England -- When Roger Federer, the best tennis player without a Grand Slam singles title, reached the semifinals here at the All England Club, an eerie calm settled over him.
|Roger Federer has put his major tournament nerves behind him.|
"All these expectations..." he said before his match with Andy Roddick. "Now I can play free."
It was an achingly beautiful sight.
Tennis, when it is played well, is a game of angles and artistry. In recent years, power has perverted the purity of the game.
But on Friday, Federer revealed a gorgeously classic game. His fluid, flowing command truly was breathtaking. He was stylish and, when necessary, savage.
Federer is only 21, but he schooled the 20-year-old American 7-6 (6), 6-3, 6-3 to advance to Sunday's final against Mark Philippoussis. The strapping Australian handled Sebastien Grosjean 7-6 (3), 6-3, 6-3.
The last time there were two straight-set men's semifinals was 1982, when John McEnroe and eventual champion Jimmy Connors smashed their way into the finals.
"I just played an incredible match," Federer said minutes after he walked off Centre Court. "Everything went right."
"As far as talent goes," Roddick said, "I don't know if there's anybody out there more talented. He's a great athlete -- he's so quick out there. I mean, there's not much he doesn't have. Now it seems like he's putting it together upstairs."
Federer, a native of Basel, Switzerland, had beaten Roddick in all three previous matches -- for obvious reasons. He moves better than Roddick and has vastly superior volleys. His backhand is better and his forehand is on par, at the very least. Federer's court sense is acute. The only advantage Roddick had going in was his thumping serve.
As it turned out, Federer even beat Roddick at his own game, serving up 17 aces, to only four for Roddick; Federer was never broken. Later, he said coyly that he noticed that he had the fewest aces of the four semifinalists.
The ace disparity was a window to Roddick's oddly tentative approach. He is usually an aggressive player, willing to bet on himself in difficult moments. Roddick had already been to a Grand Slam semifinal, earlier in the year at the Australian Open, something Federer had never experienced.
But the reason many observers envisioned a tight, five-set match was his recent performances in important matches. They were not good.
His first Grand Slam impression came two years ago, when he defeated Pete Sampras in the fourth round on Centre Court at Wimbledon. He lost to Tim Henman in a disappointing four-set quarterfinal match.
His seven subsequent Slam appearances - four fourth-round exits and three in the first round -- left people wondering if he had the goods to be a champion. When he was knocked out of the first round of the French Open by a qualifier, the speculation intensified.
"You got only so much talent and you need so much work to do on the side," Federer said. "I knew it was in me, I didn't know what it takes. If it only needs time or if it needs work or it needs whatever, because people are telling too quickly it's going to happen.
"I'm happy to put all this kind of negative talkers, you know, that I don't perform in Slams, little bit in the corners. I really felt that I could prove how good I can play today."
Perhaps the critical factor in the match was Federer's ability to handle Roddick's serve. He sees it well, reads it well and, in turn, which causes Roddick to hit it even harder -- and, ultimately, with less accuracy.
"Obviously, I feel I can return his serve, you know?" Federer said. "I'm not scared of his serve. Because every time I played him, I read it well. I don't want to say it breaks down, but he gets kind of frustrated because I read it."
Said Roddick, "It just seemed like he was seeing the ball early all day on lots of shots."
The first-set tiebreaker was where Roddick lost any chance for victory. He had saved a break point in the third game and somehow sort of awkwardly scraped into the tiebreaker at six games apiece.
Roddick lost three of the first four points, but rallied to take a 6-5 lead when he finally showed some aggression, running around his backhand and ripping a forehand. With a set point on his racket, Roddick hit a big serve and followed it with a bigger, too-aggressive forehand into the tape.
"I was an inch away from winning the first set," Roddick said.
At 6-all, Federer leaned into a forehand winner down the line, then smoked an unreturnable serve down the middle serve for the set.
And then, as Roddick said "the wheels came off."
Federer, always a brilliant front-runner, started to hit some sick shots. The illest of the ill? The last point of the second set, a wristy, short-and-sweet forehand cross-court from inside the service line.
"I remember thinking to myself, 'I played a pretty good game to make him serve it out and lost it at love.' " Roddick said. "The last shot was just ridiculous. He came full-steam ahead, half-volley, but like swinging half, like not in the air, though. I don't know if anybody else can do that shot. It was almost like he was trying to do a trick shot out there.
"But it worked."
At the conclusion, the fans -- including Sir Paul McCartney and his wife Heather Mills -- stood and gave Federer a standing ovation, rare for a three set match.
"Shot-making in the extreme," raved BBC commentator John Lloyd.
"He's just inventing the tennis book," mused Lloyd's broadcasting partner, Boris Becker.
Federer is now where he has always dreamed of being, in the final of his favorite tournament. It is a place that, at least in recent times, he has had difficulty envisioning.
"At least I really know deep inside of myself that I can win such big tournaments," Federer said. "I was not quite sure because I have never been further than a quarterfinals.
"So now I take a big experience to the next Slams and the next tournaments. I have so much confidence right now also, which makes me play great."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.