As he became the first Canadian man to reach a grand slam final, Milos Raonic appeared not to know whether to laugh or cry. John McEnroe, acting as a coaching consultant to the big-serving Raonic, who secured victory over Roger Federer in five see-saw sets, had called on his charge to be more expressive on court.
“It’s an incredible comeback from me. I was struggling through the third and fourth sets. On a little opening I managed to turn it around. It was a great match,” said Raonic.
It was tempting to wonder whether Federer did not linger a little longer than usual at the end, having surrendered the chance to make an 11th final in front of a typically adoring crowd in an arena that has become a second home. Despite being clearly annoyed with himself over the chances he failed to take to close out the fourth set, he insisted that he would be back next year.
It appeared at one stage as though the imperious Swiss was about to become the oldest male Wimbledon finalist for 42 years, having reeled in his opponent in a display that rolled back the years, but playing his second five-set contest in a row after an epic quarter-final comeback against Marin Cilic, Federer visibly faded and cut a frustrated figure.
“This one clearly hurts because I felt I could have had it,” he said. “It was really so, so close. At the same time I totally overachieved here.”
If it was strange to hear this great player talk about a semi-final as overachieving, it was also probably true. Federer, who had surgery for the first time in his career this season after injuring his knee bathing his twin daughters, slipped during the fifth set in a game that would ultimately prove pivotal. But, as he said, his chances had already come and gone by then.
Instead, it was Raonic, who saved break points that would have effectively handed the match to Federer in the fifth and ninth games of the fourth set, who came roaring back.
As it turns out, nerves get to everyone. Even Federer. The 34-year-old had served two double faults in his run to the semi-final, but after failing to take chances of his own to seal victory, in the fourth set he served two in a single game that Raonic went on to take to move into a fifth-set decider.
In that set, having called for his knee to be massaged following the slip on the hallowed turf, Federer could only watch as the irrepressible Canadian fizzed a forehand past him to break. In the space of half an hour, Raonic had clawed his way back from possible defeat to assume a winning position that he did not relinquish.
He said McEnroe’s advice had been telling. “What he told me today was to leave it all out there. I showed a lot of emotion, all of it positive. Mentally, I had one of the best matches in my career,” Raonic said.
After a whizz-bang opening the match had mutated into a gripping, if occasionally error-strewn, contest. Raonic had started like a train, pummelling Federer with serves of up to 144mph. In all, he served up 23 aces to Federer’s 16.
Federer then used all his experience to turn the tables on his younger opponent before Raonic’s power and resilience won out. At 2-1 down, the fresh-faced world No6 was hanging on for dear life and in the knowledge that if he was going to go down he might as well do so fighting, began coming up with winners.
Displaying his usual grace under pressure, the seven-times Wimbledon champion had imperceptibly taken control, establishing a 2-1 lead and appearing on course for victory, but it was Raonic who was able to summon new reserves of mental strength.
It was clear very early on that this was to be no repeat of 2014, when the pair met at the same stage and Federer closed out victory in straight sets.
Federer said he had felt insecure coming into Wimbledon, having won one of his four matches against top-10 opposition this season. Far from overawed by the reputation that precedes his illustrious opponent, Raonic – who had come back from two sets down to win in the fourth round against David Goffin – approached the first set with a swagger.
Federer was trying to attack the net whenever possible, but the rangy Raonic gave as good as he got and could always rely on his thunderous serve to get him out of trouble.
At set point down, Federer dug out a cross-court winner that left Raonic stranded and elicited an elated reaction from the Centre Court crowd. The Canadian would not be denied, though, and put away a forehand winner to seal the set.
Up in the Royal Box, Bjorn Borg looked on as the Swiss came roaring back to take the tiebreak that sealed the second set. Federer had all the momentum in the third and fourth until that crucial moment in the fifth game.
Grace Jones, a Federer fan, was also in the expensive seats and thrilled to the sight of the Swiss coming back. Yet it was ultimately Federer who was a slave to Raonic’s rhythm, as he sealed a famous victory in just under three and a half hours.
Inevitably, Fed-erer was asked if this would be the last time. “I hope to be back on Centre Court. To make it very clear for you,” he said.
For Raonic, who made what felt like a significant breakthrough, there should be many visits to come – starting on Sunday.
Turning his attention to Sunday - a rematch of the Queen’s final last month that Murray won 6-7, 6-4, 6-3 - Raonic said he would try to avoid going into his shell, praising Murray as a “premier workaholic” but vowing to play his own game.
“He’ll try to throw you off, give you some slower balls, some harder balls, all these kinds of things. I guess my goal is to keep him away from that, play it on my terms, be aggressive, not hesitate,” he said.
As for the prospect of facing the home favourite on Centre Court two days after dispatching the much loved Federer, Raonic insisted he would not be fazed.
“You face what you have to face. First and foremost, I got to face myself, then I got to face Andy. The rest, if I don’t have control over, I try to make it as irrelevant to me as possible.”
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