As Djokovic and Nadal battled in final after final over the last four majors, their two leading rivals waited in thinly concealed impatience for that tide to subside. Now that it finally has, both Federer and Murray will seek to capitalize upon an opportunity that has grown increasingly rare for one man and has remained sporadic for the other. Once reaching 10 consecutive championship matches at majors, one of his countless records, the player in pursuit of his seventh Wimbledon crown has not held one of the sport’s four ultimate prizes since the 2010 Australian Open and has reached only one major final since that stage. Meanwhile, the player in pursuit of Great Britain’s first homegrown male champion here since the Second World War has not won a set in any of his three major finals, including two against his opponent on Sunday.
A sequel to the annual Terrors of Tim, Murray Mania convulses this island nation with anxiety for two weeks every year, until now progressing from initial hope to disappointment mixed with the recognition of that hope as an irrational phantom. Every year seems a little different from the year before it, though, and 2012 has seemed the most different of all, for the dragon under the flag of St. George has breathed fire through six opponents rather than five. Without sounding harsh, however, Murray’s additional round of progress resembled less a glorious ascent of a mountain than a detour around it, designed by accomplice Lukas Rosol. Whether or not the Scot would have solved Nadal in a third straight semifinal here will remain a question unanswered, and a question irrelevant if he wins this title.
Blocking his path to that historic feat is a champion who crushed Murray at the US Open four years ago, eased past him at the Australian Open two years ago, and is favored to repeat the result on the lawns of Wimbledon. Just as he did at Roland Garros 2011, Federer delivered one of his most impressive victories of the season against Djokovic in the semifinals of a major. Less staggeringly brilliant than that day in Paris, his performance here nevertheless showed a bold sense of purpose and a tactical acuity familiar from the peak of his career. Like Serena, Federer survived a pair of early encounters in which he looked fallible, to put it kindly, only to find his best form from the quarterfinals onward. Also like Serena, he surely would gain especial satisfaction from a seventh Wimbledon title and a return to the #1 ranking, a moment of vindication for a fading legend who has persevered despite the doubts that surely have troubled him in these arid years. One struggles to resist the suspicion that circumstances have aligned serendipitously for Federer here, for even his heavily criticized backhand shone in rallies against Djokovic’s much superior stroke—a development that none but the most devoted of his supporters could have predicted.
On the other hand, Great Britain’s infamous title drought at its home major seems almost too established in tennis lore to end with the first attempt in the modern era. Searching for a slice of history arguably even more notable than those that Federer covets here, Murray must find a way to project himself more affirmatively early in the match. His two previous major finals against Federer started with lackluster tennis that allowed his veteran rival to seize the initiative immediately, and the Swiss would not have won sixteen major titles if he often relinquished an advantage once captured. Opening with conviction against Tsonga, Murray avoided pressure early in that match by keeping his emotions positive and his first serve in the box. That shot could prove the key to his victory against an opponent who generally expects to hold much more easily in view of his more explosive weapons and greater readiness to move forward. An underrated volleyer, the Scot has shown an encouragingly enhanced appetite for approaching the net this fortnight and also for cracking his forehand closer to the lines. In most of his previous marquee matches at majors, that stroke cost him critical points either from passivity or from forced, exaggerated aggression. Considering how tense the atmosphere in his semifinal grew when Tsonga cracked the slightest chink in Murray’s armor, one wonders how Murray will shoulder the electricity likely to crackle from start to finish in a match that he surely will not control so thoroughly.
Almost precisely balanced are the fifteen previous collisions between the third and fourth seeds, but one cannot fail to discern patterns from them. At the Masters 1000 tournaments, the level just below the majors, Murray has won five of six from Federer. At the five most important events on the calendar, the majors and the year-end championships, Federer has won four of five from Murray. That division illustrates a reason why commentators sometimes suggest that the ATP Gang of Four actually comprises “three and a half men.” With a single statement, Murray could restore the other half to that equation. The number that matters to Federer, however, is not three, three and a half, or four, but seventeen. And the number that matters to both men is one: the number that Federer would hold in the rankings longer than anyone else in history, the number of Wimbledon titles that Murray needs to answer his nation’s prayers, and the number of those dreams that will come true on Sunday.