This is the second time that Roger Federer (above) and Novak Djokovic are meeting in a grand slam final. Photo: Reuters
Roger Federer is a student of history, as well as a prolific maker of it, but was neither aware, nor did he particularly care that on Sunday he could become the oldest man to win a Wimbledon singles title in the Open era. "Not so important," smiled Federer, almost 33. "I would know it, if it would be really important to me, but it's not."
The father-of-four is more interested in what would be a record eighth coronation at the All England Club, and a record-extending 18th major championship that would restore the four-slam lead that a certain Spaniard keeps nibbling away at each time he sinks his teeth into another of the sport's big trophies at presentation time.
Before Friday's clinical 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 win over Canadian Milos Raonic, it had been two years since Federer last won a grand slam semi-final, although he has not lost any of his nine at Wimbledon. Just as Nadal, the only player to win the same grand slam eight - now extended to nine - times, owns the clay of Roland Garros, Federer is the king of south-west London grass, and could be the first man to match Nadal, elsewhere.
"I feel unbelievably proud every time I walk the grounds here," Federer said after defeating Raonic in 101 minutes. "I know I don't have 10 left. I'll try to enjoy it. The first one in 2003 was a dream come true; it's surreal that I've been so successful here."
This one was not supposed to have happened, of course, given that Federer was thought to be not just yesterday's hero, but probably a relic from a few days before that, and also that the young bucks were apparently ready to resume the defiance of the Big Four that late-blooming Wawrinka had managed at the Australian Open. Nadal was gone first, for which Federer owes an eternal debt to obliging Australian Nick Kyrgios, and defending champion Murray next.
But, for Federer, this was always going to represent his best chance of one more major success, and he has lost just one set (to Wawrinka), and one service game so far. Novak Djokovic, in contrast, came from two sets to one down in the quarters against Marin Cilic, and was then stretched past three hours as both he and Grigor Dimitrov slipped and slid through four sets that the Serb won 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (7-2), 7-6 (8-7) after saving three points that would have forced a fifth set.
From a set and a break up, Djokovic lamented that he had again let an opponent back into the contest. Also weighing heavily, it seems, is his loss of three of his past four grand slam finals.
"I should have won a few matches that I lost in finals of grand slams in last couple years," Djokovic, 27, said. "But it's an experience. It's a learning process. It's understanding, identifying where the problem is, you know, pushing for it, working on it. It's mental in the end of the day. You have to be able to be in the top of your game, mentally fresh and motivated, calm and composed."
Tense times, indeed. By Sunday night, Djokovic will either have regained the No.1 ranking from Nadal or lost his eighth grand slam final out of 14.
"It doesn't get any easier, said his famous co-coach, Boris Becker, hired for moments just like these. "It's like losing a couple of times on penalties in the World Cup and then stepping up to the spot again. You have to do the best you can... It's giving yourself a chance and putting yourself in a situation. Then instincts take over. The good ones win and the bad ones lose.''
Federer leads 18-16, and 1-0 on grass, but, surprisingly, this will be only their second meeting in a grand slam final. Hard to believe, really, considering how often both have duelled on the last Sunday with Nadal. Still, the Swiss summarised their collective past as: "Athletic. It's been good. I must say I've enjoyed the matches against him. We didn't come through the rankings together, so I was established while he was coming up.
"I think it was totally different for both of us. We saw each other in a different light than we see each other today when we're both ranked high, we both achieved a lot. Things have clearly changed over time. But ever since he's won grand slams and became world No.1, it's been a cool rivalry, in my opinion.
"We both like to be close to the baseline. We both like to take charge, especially on quicker courts. He has a wonderful way of either redirecting or taking the ball early, taking pace from the opponent, even generating some of his own.
"So I think that's what makes him so hard to play. There's not really a safe place you can play into. Like back in the day there was many guys where you just knew, ‘Oh, this guy is a bit dodgy on the backhand. Let me play that and then build up the point from that’. Novak can hurt you down the line or cross-court on both sides. He's really improved through the years. I've seen him come through the rankings. His forehand, his serve, his movement clearly is what stands out the most at this moment now.
"I think for me it's really important to stay aggressive against him - and especially here at Wimbledon - it's more simple how we need to play against each other. It's not like on a slow court where you can maybe manoeuvre the other guy around so much. On grass it's a bit more straightforward and I think we're both aware of that.''
Despite the immense respect for Djokovic, there is no doubt who the crowd and sentimental favourite will be. Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall - still by some distance the oldest Wimbledon finalist of the Open era - and John Newcombe all agreed midway through the tournament that they wanted Federer to win an eighth title more than they believed he truly would. But hearts were ruling heads.
Across the Atlantic, too, three-time Fed-beaten finalist, Andy Roddick, used one of his daily US podcasts to shout his support. "I want to see Roger Federer win this tournament because people just try to close the book on great athletes too fast," said the man defeated by the incomparable Swiss 10 years ago, and also in the 2005 and 2009 finals.
"Roger Federer is not allowed to be a contender at the majors; he has to be the favourite, or people want to retire him, and that’s just ridiculous. The man makes $70 million a year and loves playing tennis. Why would he stop? I would love Roger Federer to have that one more moment at Wimbledon, it would almost be poetic, then see what he does after that."