It's hard to feel sorry for Novak Djokovic, but we need to. For the second straight Wimbledon tennis tournament, he is positioned as the spoiler, Mr. Buzz Kill.
Life is not fair. Certainly, not life in pro tennis.
Djokovic has it all. When he held off the wild charge of one of the sport's new young guns, Grigor Dmitrov of Bulgaria, he made his way into his third Wimbledon final in four years. In the last 16 major tournaments, he has been in 12 of the finals.
He is ranked No. 2 in the world and seeded No. 1 here. He is good-looking, well-spoken and probably has more money than the biggest bank in Serbia.
His most recent advance to the Wimbledon final came in a captivating four-set semifinal Friday. That match, on a grass court turned to hard dirt by hot and dry weather, featured more slipping and sliding than an Olympic curling match. The match also showcased the incredible mental strength that keeps Djokovic surviving the many tight spots into which he wanders.
He won the match, despite the 23-year-old Dmitrov's getting to, and hitting, shots that mortals cannot, with a comeback in the fourth-set tiebreaker when trailing 6-3. Against a huge server at Wimbledon, you don't do that. Djokovic did. The final score was 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (7).
Djokovic won with a passing shot on match point that ticked the net cord. It was a symbolic and fitting ending to a battle that seemed headed, from the start, to a finish determined by fractions of an inch.
So why feel sorry for him?
Roger Federer won the other semifinal, that's why.
When Federer beat Canada's Milos Raonic, who has a huge serve and resembles Lurch from "The Addams Family," it put Djokovic on the spot again.
In Sunday's final, it will be crystal clear who wears the black hat. For the second year in a row, it will be Djokovic.
In the final last year, he played Britain's favorite son, Andy Murray, who beat him and got rid of the 77-year drought between British male singles championships here on sacred home turf.
This year, Murray left early.
So Djokovic gets Britain's second favorite son, Federer, in this final. Federer beat Raonic, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4, and has moved through the draw so far with the loss of just one set.
It also means, to so many Brits who have so many personal memories of watching Federer winning seven titles, that their dream of one more Federer title run could come true.
So they will come and root, from inside Centre Court and from Henman Hill. They will crowd around TV sets, pack into pubs, and root again for "Rajah."
And they will know what is at stake, and what Djokovic can ruin by winning Sunday. An eighth Wimbledon title would be a men's record. It would top the seven by Pete Sampras and William Renshaw. Renshaw's don't really count as much, because, when he won his back in the late 1800s, several were achieved by merely defending his title in a single match, rather than going through a full tournament format.
There will be great sentiment on Federer's side, not just here, but worldwide.
He is 32 and carrying it well. He is the sport's elder statesman, who seemingly handles everything with dignity, on and off the court. He has played a large role in the internal politics and decision-making that has helped the men's tour grow and flourish.
He is also the father of four, two sets of twins, the boys having arrived just two months ago. And if you don't think that brings fan identification, especially from female fans, think again.
Tennis fans want to let go of Federer only slightly less than he wants to let go of his stature in the game. This vault back into a Grand Slam final — his first such appearance since he won Major No. 17 here in 2012 in what many figured would be the grand farewell — is stunning.
Last year, he left here in the second round, then was ousted in the fourth round at the U.S. Open. It was a terrible year by his standards. So he let some injuries heal up, went back to the drawing board, worked harder and here he is.
"My game is back where I hoped it would be," he said Friday.
Dmitrov, with girlfriend Maria Sharapova sitting in his box, played a marvelous match. He is fast, athletic, has a huge serve, a big heart, lots of guts and enough of a tendency toward inconsistency to let Djokovic squeak this one out. For example, Dmitrov was the bigger server, but Djokovic had more aces, 17-15. Also, Dmitrov had eight double faults.
Still, the court drama and competitive fire were outstanding, and a fifth set would have been one for the books. Still, most likely, the veteran Djokovic would have been the one to close it, as he did in four.
"I understand what you have to go through as a player," he said, "to win a Grand Slam."
But it may be hard for even him to absorb the complete dynamic he faces when he steps onto the court Sunday against Federer.
Even as Djokovic spoke in his news conference, a crowd gathered under a bridge that runs above from Centre Court to the players' area. Soon, security had to be called because the walkway, a good 15 yards wide, was jammed.
Federer had just finished his match. They were waiting for him to cross the bridge, so they could get a picture.
Or even a glimpse.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times