Roger Federer is once again being hailed as possibly the greatest sportsman in history as he strives to become the oldest Wimbledon champion in almost half a century of professional tennis.
Federer will take on defending champion Novak Djokovic in Sunday’s showpiece final in a rematch of last year’s title match and the 40th career showdown between the world’s top two players.
Victory in his record 10th final at the All England Club would earn the 33-year-old father of four an unprecedented eighth men’s singles crown – and an 18th career grand slam title in total, matching Jack Nicklaus’s magical 18 golf majors and swimmer Michael Phelp’s 18 Olympic gold medals.
Andy Murray placed Federer alongside Mohammad Ali and Pele as arguably the finest athlete the world had ever known after the mighty Swiss upstaged him in the 2012 final to regain tennis’s top ranking at almost 32 in 2012.
After his breathtaking semi-final display against Murray on Friday, a month shy of his 34th birthday, the Scot – among others – said the ageless maestro had reignited the debate.
“He’s a great sportsman, a great tennis player,” Murray said after succumbing 7-5 7-5 6-4 in what Federer acknowledged as “definitely one of the best matches I’ve played in my career”.
“I don’t know if anyone’s played as well as Roger maybe at that age.
“Serena (Williams) obviously on the women’s side is doing it. But they’re pretty rare athletes.”
Tennis alone, Federer has the chance to end all arguments and stand alone as undoubtedly the greatest to have graced the courts with success over his most enduring grand slam rival at a time when 28-year-old Djokovic is at the peak of his own powers.
An eight-times major winner, Djokovic broke new ground when he saw off Richard Gasquet 7-6 (7-2) 6-4 6-4 earlier on Friday to qualify for the finals of the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon in a single season for the first time.
But the supremely confident Federer – who said pre-tournament he’d never been better prepared for Wimbledon and told Swiss journalists he’d need deep introspection if he didn’t win the title – is relishing another shot at the Serb.
“It’s great to play Novak anywhere these days because he’s a great player,” he said.
“He’s had great success, unbelievable success actually, throughout his career.
“But especially now the last few years, he’s been unbelievably dominant.
“He’s become very match-tough. He always shows up. It’s tough to beat him. He’s been good for the game.”
Djokovic edged Federer in a five-set classic last year and is bidding to join his coach Boris Becker as a three-time Wimbledon champion in his fourth final, having also reigned in 2011.
“I don’t really think about the match we played against each other last year. I just remember it was unbelievably thrilling. The crowd really got into it,” Federer said.
“I’m just happy personally for myself to be back in the finals. Whoever that’s going to be against, it’s always a big occasion.
“That it’s Novak, the world No.1, it obviously adds something extra.”
Sunday’s will be the 13th grand slam meeting between Federer and Djokovic, with the two giants of the game splitting the previous dozen.
No two men have clashed more at the majors, with Djokovic’s victory in last year’s final at SW19 atoning for his loss to Federer in the 2007 US Open decider.
The world No.1 is a marginal favourite, but Federer is performing at another level in 2015 and has won an astonishing 140 of his last 141 service games, facing just five break points all tournament.
“We shouldn’t spend too much words about him. We all know how good he is,” Djokovic said.
“He’s the greatest ever. There’s not enough praises for what he does.
“This is where he loves to play. This is where he plays his best tennis, I think – the centre court of Wimbledon, seven titles.
“It’s his court. He loves it. He usually rises up to the occasion. He’s always playing his toughest when it matters the most. That’s why he’s a big champion.
“It’s going to be probably the biggest challenge I can have.”
HOW THE MEN’S WIMBLEDON FINALISTS SHAPE UP AHEAD OF SUNDAY’S SHOWDOWN (11PM AEST):
2-ROGER FEDERER (SUI) leads 1-NOVAK DJOKOVIC (SRB) 20-19 (6-6 at grand slams)
2014 Wimbledon, grass, F, Djokovic 6-7 (7-9) 6-4 7-6 (7-4) 5-7 6-4
2012 Wimbledon, grass, SF, Federer 6-3 3-6 6-4 6-3
2012 French Open, clay, SF, Djokovic 6-4 7-5 6-3
2011 US Open, hard, SF, Djokovic 6-7 (7-9) 4-6 6-3 6-2 7-5
2011 French Open, clay, SF, Federer 7-6 (7-5) 6-3 3-6 7-6 (7-5)
2011 Australian Open, hard, SF, Djokovic 7-6 (7-3) 7-5 6-4
2010 US Open, hard, SF Djokovic 5-7 6-1 5-7 6-2 7-5
2009 US Open, hard, SF, Federer 7-6 (7-3) 7-5 7-5
2008 US Open, hard, SF, Federer 6-3 5-7 7-5 6-2
2008 Australian Open, hard, SF, Djokovic 7-5 6-3 7-6 (7-5)
2007 US Open, hard, F, Federer 7-6 (7-4) 7-6 (7-2) 6-4
2007 Australian Open, hard, R16, Federer 6-2 7-5 6-3
Born: Belgrade, Serbia
Lives: Monte Carlo, Monaco
Plays: right-handed (two-handed backhand)
Career prize money: $US78,397,032 ($A105.26 million)
Career titles: 53
2015 titles: 5
Career win-loss record: 651-143
2015 win-loss record: 47-3
Grand slam titles: 8 (Australian Open 2008, 2011-2013, 2015; Wimbledon 2011, 2014; US Open 2011)
Career grand slam win-loss record: 199-34
Wimbledon win-loss record: 51-8
Best Wimbledon performances: champion 2011, 2014
ROAD TO FINAL
1st rd: bt Philipp Kohlschreiber (GER) 6-4 6-4 6-4
2nd rd: bt Jarkko Nieminen (FIN) 6-4 6-2 6-3
3rd rd: bt 27-Bernard Tomic (AUS) 6-3 6-3 6-3
4th rd: bt 14-Kevin Anderson (RSA) 6-7 (6-8) 6-7 (6-8) 6-1 6-4 7-5
QF: bt 9-Marin Cilic (CRO) 6-4 6-4 6-4
SF: bt 21-Richard Gasquet (FRA) 7-6 (7-2) 6-4 6-4
Born: Basel, Switzerland
Lives: Bottmingen, Switzerland
Career prize money: $US90,936,295 ($A122.09 million)
Career titles: 86
2015 titles: 4
Career win-loss record: 1036-233
2015 win-loss record: 43-6
Grand slam titles: 17 (Australian Open 2004, 2006-07, 2010; French Open 2009; Wimbledon 2003-07, 2009, 2012; US Open 2004-2008)
Career grand slam win-loss record: 291-47
Wimbledon win-loss record: 79-9
Best Wimbledon performances: champion 2003-07, 2009, 2012
ROAD TO FINAL
1st rd: bt Damir Dzumhur (BIH) 6-1 6-3 6-3
2nd rd: bt Sam Querrey (USA) 6-4 6-2 6-2
3rd rd: bt Sam Groth (AUS) 6-4 6-4 6-7 (5-7) 6-2
4th rd: bt 20-Roberto Bautista Agut (ESP) 6-2 6-2 6-3
QF: bt 12-Gilles Simon (FRA) 6-3 7-5 6-2
SF: bt 3-Andy Murray (GBR) 7-5 7-5 6-4