Roger Federer salutes an adoring Centre Court crowd
In the penultimate game, as Roger Federer eyed break point and the faintest glimpse of revival, Hubert Hurkacz produced three points of implausibly perfect tennis with a series of balls dropping on lines in little puffs of white dust. Federer spent an afternoon scrabbling around in the grass trying to find his game, and in the brief moments when he thought he had, he was blown away.
Hurkacz’s hold made it 5-0 in the third set and it summed up Federer’s afternoon when, in the final game, he fumbled the ball as he prepared to serve, something he has done on Centre Court without thinking a thousand times before. “The question has always been ‘will there ever be a day when he wakes up and feels 39?’,” John McEnroe said. “Well, we’re watching it right here.”
A wave, a twirl and he was gone. If this was the end of Federer’s romance with Wimbledon it was entirely unbefitting, blasted off court by someone better than him in every department, 6-3, 7-6(4), 6-0. It was the most uncharacteristic of performances played virtually without a forehand, such was its wild aim. Never before in this arena had an opponent targeted a Federer weakness so openly, so consistently and so effectively.
It would be too simplistic to attribute a bad day to his advancing age, of course, and unfair too. This was the performance of Hurkacz’s life, one blending power with panache and a surprisingly deft touch for a man of 6ft 5in, and the Pole’s reaction to beating his childhood idol was almost sheepish. “It’s super special for me, playing on this special court against Roger – from a kid it’s like a dream come true to play him. I’m so happy, I can’t wait for the next one.”
Hurkacz will come back on Friday for his first grand slam semi-final, and he will get a little more support. His fast start immediately got Federer’s adoring crowd on the defensive, trying to lift their man to the heights of old. Federer needed it too, pushed to the limits of his game by a 24-year-old with a towering, kicking serve which bit the turf and spun into orbit. Federer’s first serves returned fell below 50 per cent as he struggled to get hold of Hurkacz’s predominant weapon.
Hurkacz’s defensive skills were sharp too, and got him out of the only tight spot he experienced. Down a break halfway though the second set, he stretched out a limb to pluck successive returns from the air, once going crosscourt with a winner as Federer approached the net and then going deep down the line, forcing a backhand error which sealed the break-back and ended the eight-time champion’s brief resistance.
It led to a crucial second-set tie-break at the end of the second set. They shared the first four points before Federer came forwards and slammed a drive-volley into the net, one the gasping crowd had expected him to make. On the next point he came into the net again and, just as someone in the crowd screamed in the tension, Federer slipped and missed a simple volley.
That made it 4-2 to Hurkacz at the change of ends and although Federer quickly earned back a mini-break, he immediately gave it up with yet another forehand error. A Swiss ace brought a roar and the score to 5-4, but Hurkacz still had two serves to close out the second set and put one foot in the semi-finals. Federer’s tame return off a big second serve offered an invitation for a simple forehand winner which Hurkacz took, before he delivered a huge unreturnable serve down the T. Hurkacz had clinched the set, and the most startling thing was that he deserved to.
The final set was not quite as emphatic as the score suggested but it was done within half an hour in a way that seemed entirely incongruous with memories of Federer on this court. That extraordinary match with Rafael Nadal always springs to mind, even though it was not one of his eight glories but perhaps the greatest defeat tennis has ever seen. In contrast this might have been his feeblest, unable to muster the precision that made him master of grass. It has a new master now, of course; Novak Djokovic is still on course to win his third successive Wimbledon title on Sunday and match Federer and Nadal on 20 grand slams. As Federer swept the crisp white headband off his forehead and strode out of sight, it was hard to imagine him adding more.
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