- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
- 0 Shares
WIMBLEDON, England -- Nine years ago, Jonas Bjorkman had the best year of his career in singles, winning three ATP titles and finishing with a ranking of No. 4 in the world. That season, as a favor to fellow Swede Peter Lundgren, Bjorkman agreed to hit with a 16-year-old Swiss player in Key Biscayne, Fla.
Bjorkman wasn't impressed.
"I practiced with him," Bjorkman remembered. "Semi-tanked on the practice. [I] thought, 'Jesus, what kid is this? Not really ready.' "
The kid was Roger Federer. The next time Bjorkman saw him, he was ready.
"One year later, you see this unbelievably talented guy," said Bjorkman. "He's just the perfect No. 1 we can have, I think, both on the court and off the court."
Nearly a decade after that unimpressive outing, Federer is the world's best player and Bjorkman, at 34, is coming to the end of his singles career.
Before their semifinal match at the All England Club, Bjorkman essentially conceded defeat when he said his chief focus would be on trying to enjoy the experience. Still, Bjorkman didn't smile as much as grimace during Friday's fleeting, 77-minute match.
Federer won with ridiculous ease, 6-2, 6-0, 6-2, to advance to his fourth consecutive Wimbledon final. It was the most one-sided men's semifinal at Wimbledon since the current format was instituted in 1922.
Is that as close to perfection as he can play?
"Yeah," said Federer, "it was flawless. When you can dominate an opponent, it's always sort of nice. But then especially in a semifinals of a Grand Slam, it's even better.
"He told me after the match that he actually thought he was playing all right. I just had a really great day and, unfortunately, he couldn't do any better."
Federer will meet No. 2 Rafael Nadal, a rematch of the French Open final (won by Nadal) -- and mark the first time in 54 years that the same two players contested the championships at Roland Garros and Wimbledon in the same year. Grass is Nadal's worst surface, but he has won six of seven career matches with Federer, whose game is made for grass.
History again beckons Federer, who reached his fifth consecutive Grand Slam final. A win in the final would give him four consecutive Wimbledon titles, something only Bjorn Borg and Pete Sampras have done in the last 93 years. He has yet to lose a set and if he comes through in straights on Sunday, he will become the first man to achieve that since Borg 30 years ago. His record of consecutive match wins on grass now stands at 47.
"I just felt it was in a way nice to be around and see how someone can play the nearest to perfection you can play tennis," Bjorkman said. "He just made it look so easy."
Bjorkman was installed as a 20-to-1 underdog by the British touts, but surely the odds were longer than that. Bjorkman, 10 years older than the world's No. 1 player, had never taken a set from Nadal in three matches.
Brad Gilbert, the former coach of Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick, is an insatiable sports fan. Sitting in the ESPN studio earlier Thursday, he scoured his memory bank for a sports upset to which a Bjorkman win would compare. His top three:
1. James "Buster" Douglas' 1990 upset of heavyweight champion Mike Tyson.
2. Australia's successful challenge for the America's Cup in 1983, ending the United States' 132-year grip on the sterling trophy, the longest winning streak in the history of sport.
3. The New York Jets' victory over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.
In tennis, Gilbert said, there was no parallel.
"You could send Bjorkman out there with [doubles partner] Max Mirnyi and the two of them couldn't beat Federer -- even if you made him cover the doubles court," Gilbert said. "He could wear that [tailored pre-match] jacket and still win."
At least that would make it interesting.
Bjorkman was not supposed to be here. He won two singles matches in his first 10 tournaments this year and was starting to wonder if he should concentrate full-time on doubles. But he has always been a terrific player on grass and three weeks ago, in Nottingham, he found his game. Bjorkman won four matches there -- before losing to Richard Gasquet in the final -- and then his first five at Wimbledon.
His conditioning, despite his age, has been nothing short of marvelous. Going into his match with Federer, Bjorkman had survived three five-set matches and had spent a minute short of 15 hours on court, seven hours more than Federer. Bjorkman's state of mind was rapturous, since it had been nine years between Grand Slam semifinal appearances. His one and only other: the 1997 U.S. Open.
The match was completely devoid of drama. Federer served big and beautifully. Bjorkman did not gain a break point.
"He always looks like he doesn't look that he's moving a lot, but he's always there," Bjorkman said, neatly describing the conundrum that is Federer. "It looks like he has a lot of time to hit his ball all the time. But obviously his wrist in both forehand and backhand, he can create so much power with it.
"That's probably what amazed me most, how he can generate so much power."
Pete Sampras, winner of 14 Grand Slam singles titles -- the all-time record -- weighed in on Federer Thursday on a World Team Tennis conference call. He was asked if he sensed the young Swiss player was his heir apparent when Federer beat him in a dramatic five-set, fourth-round match in the 2001 Wimbledon.
"At the time, I wasn't sure," Sampras said. "I didn't know how far he was going to take it and where he was going to go. I think I've seen him the last couple years just get a little better, a little better, just kind of figure it out. You just kind of figure it out on your own. He has his formula for being the best player in the world, like I had.
"I didn't know if he was going to dominate like he is today, but I just think he's really, really good. [I] kind of sit back and watch him, put myself on the other side of the net, see how I would play him. I think we both would have our hands full."
Federer, apparently, has had his hands full at the All England Club for some time. After the match, he revealed that, in the absence of any flaws on the court, he may have a minor character flaw.
Instead of placing those sweat-sodden purple and green Wimbledon towels in the locker room laundry basket, he drops them in his racket bag.
"I do take a few," Federer said, smiling. "I have a big collection, stacked up back home. We only get them on the courts and not in the locker room. It's a good gift, you know."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
1dEthan Sherwood Strauss