He awaits the winner of Friday’s semifinal between ninth-seeded Rafael Nadal, the imposing left-hander who has been Federer’s nemesis throughout his career, and 15th-seeded Grigor Dimitrov, who has lost all five of his matches against Federer.
At 35, Federer is the oldest man to reach a Grand Slam singles final since Ken Rosewall played the 1974 United States Open at age 39.
In this tournament, Federer did not always make it easy on his aging body; he also needed five sets to defeat fifth-seeded Kei Nishikori in the fourth round. This was only the third time in Federer’s career, and the first since the 2009 French Open, that he won two five-set matches in the same event.
The struggle against Wawrinka was a play in three acts, with intermissions. Wawrinka, 31, had won only three times in the pair’s 21 previous meetings, and each victory came on slow, red clay. In the opening stages on Thursday on the faster hardcourts here, Federer was in complete control. He frustrated Wawrinka with his ability to flick the ball around the court at will, going up a set and a break while remaining untouchable on his serve.
With his racket unable to break Federer, Wawrinka cracked it into the court, then snapped it over his bent right leg like kindling, drawing gasps from the crowd. When the second set ended, Wawrinka exited with the trainer for an off-court medical timeout.
Federer put on a jacket to keep warm in the cooling night air, but then left the court himself for a bathroom break.
Wawrinka returned with tape under his right knee and quickly turned the match. From 1-1 in the third, he reeled off seven straight games, including four consecutive breaks of the previously impenetrable Federer serve to win the third set and go up a break in the fourth.
“I thought he relaxed, really, and I just couldn’t serve as well as I did,” Federer said. “He let it go, and it worked well for him, and the next thing you know it’s hard to stop the bleeding, I guess.”
Federer regained a foothold by breaking Wawrinka’s serve in the second game of the fourth set, and the two played on level terms from there until Wawrinka broke with a forehand passing shot in the ninth game. He then served out the set at love.
Federer said in his news conference that he feared the change of momentum in the match was the kind of wall he had expected to eventually hit against a top player, that his rust from six months without competing would prove too much to overcome against the best players in the game.
“Midway through the fourth, when I realized my game was fading and Stan was having the upper hand on the baseline, I thought: I guess that’s what I was always talking about,” Federer said. “Things turn for the worse, you don’t know why. But the good thing is, I did have the cushion from the first two sets. I think I did a lot of things right. I prepared the match in a way that allowed me to win it later on.”
Before the fifth set, it was Federer’s turn to take an off-court medical timeout for what he described as a “leg thing,” which he said had been bothering him since early in the match.
“I just said: You know what? I never take injury timeouts; Stan already took his, so people won’t be mad,” Federer said of the break, which lasted seven minutes. “Stan won’t be mad, hopefully. It was on the set change and you just hope something works. That physio, he’s got some magic hands.”
In an interview with Swiss television after the match, Federer said that he had been struggling with an adductor injury during the tournament. In his news conference, he said he did not expect the injury to affect him in the final.
Wawrinka played down the importance of the breaks in the match and any possible tactical motives.
“We both know each other: We’re not the players who took extra medical timeout,” Wawrinka said.
Wawrinka’s best chance to pull ahead in the fifth set came on a break point at 1-1. He teed off on the return of a second serve with a deep backhand cross-court, which Federer returned at full extension in the doubles alley. Wawrinka swung freely on his next shot, a forehand, but Federer neutralized it with a backhand down the line. That allowed him to take control of the rally, which he ultimately finished at the net.
“I think I played the right shot,” Wawrinka said. “I did a good return on his backhand. I had a high ball. I took my forehand, I really went completely full on his backhand. He came with a good shot. So, nothing to change.”
Federer went ahead, 4-2, with a break of serve aided by three consecutive errors and a double fault by Wawrinka.
“I just knew that I had to stay in it somehow,” Federer said. “But if I played aggressive and connected on a few returns, all of a sudden it could turn around. I did feel like he gave a bit of a cheap break. It’s not like I really deserved it at that moment. But after that, I did well.”
When Federer served out the victory three games later, his disbelief was visible.
“It’s gone much better than I thought it would,” he said. “That’s also what I was telling myself in the fifth set. I was talking to myself, saying like: ‘Just relax, man. The comeback is so great already. Let it fly off your racket and just see what happens.’
“I think that’s the mind-set I got to have, as well, in the finals, sort of a nothing-to-lose mentality. It’s been nice these last six matches to have that mentality. It worked very well, so I’ll keep that up.”
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