THE young guns were spiked on Centre Court yesterday.
Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic marched on to the most famous battlefield in tennis but left wounded and beaten.
Dimitrov, at least, was carried out on his shield. He fought bravely and skilfully but was overwhelmed by the superior force of experience in the shape of Novak Djokovic. Raonic was simply routed by the irresistible force of Roger Federer, whose sights were set accurately on his 25th grand slam final.
Djokovic, 27, and Federer, 32, now meet tomorrow for only the second time in a grand slam final, with the Swiss winning the only previous meeting, the US Open of 2007.
The pretenders Raonic and Dimitrov, both 23, were sent homewards to think again.
They will ponder on different lessons. Dimitrov, technically adroit and increasingly tough both mentally and physically, had chances. He did not take them. In artillery terms, this is akin to taking a very large howitzer and aiming it at one's toes.
The Bulgarian, who slid so much he seemed to be playing on an ice rink, fell to a champion who recognises that when an opportunity comes it would be almost rude not to take it. Djokovic's 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (2) victory in three hours two minutes had several changes of momentum but it was no matter of chance that the Serb prevailed.
He started serenely winning the first set and going a break up in the third but then suffered the sort of collapse that was as unexpected as it was calamitous. Dimitrov, showing extraordinary resolve, broke the Serb twice to take the set, plundering Djokovic's second serve.
The third and fourth sets were a painful lesson for Dimitrov. He served brilliantly in the third, offering no break point to Djokovic but could not, crucially, take the one he was offered. Djokovic out-muscled him in the tie-break.
The fourth set was the killer for Dimitrov, the one where his dream died. There was little between the players, though the Bulgarian seemed to have the edge. They exchanged breaks, changed shoes because of the surface and swopped shots of power and skill. But the tie-break went the way of the player who has endured the heightened experience of grand slam semi-finals and finals. Dimitrov had three set points and could not convert one. Djokovic won on the second match point offered to him.
"You never know what would have happened if I had taken that fourth set," said Dimitrov. "I think at the same time I had my momentum. It's just he came on top today, so all the credit to him."
Of the missed opportunities, he added: "I'm going to lie if I say I don't think about it now. I'm sure tonight I probably won't get an hour of sleep because of that or something else during the match that would affect me."
Djokovic may also sleep fitfully. He faced the big points as a fully paid-up member of the Big Four but he is also a player who has won only one of the past six grand slam finals he has contested.
This has left mental wounds. Djokovic talked of how important it would be psychologically to beat Federer tomorrow. He has hinted at weakness in his thinking in the past but he was strong enough to overcome Dimitrov. "Stress comes from different factors obviously. But pressure is part of what we do, it's part of our lives and our sport, and you have to deal with it," he explained.
Of the match-up with the Bulgarian in the big moments yesterday, he said: "It's exactly the same for you and your opponent. You're one on one. That's what makes this sport so unique. It's a fight on the court. It's a team sport behind the stages as well because the team makes sure you're at the best. But when you're on the court, nobody can help you. You have to execute all the shots by yourself
"With the experience you learn how to cope with the pressure in those moments and you understand better the particular phase that you're in during the tournament. But it's different because when you are younger, sometimes you're careless and you go on the court and play the tennis without really thinking too much. When you get older, you start to think a little bit more."
Federer, who now seeks to win his eighth Wimbledon title, took the straightforward route to the final. He broke Raonic, who has a serve that deal outs aces with the facility of a card sharp, three times in three sets. Match over, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 in a brisk one hour 41 minutes. Raonic was offered one break point and could not take it. The Canadian just did not have the weapons, aside from his serve, to unnerve Federer.
The Swiss player spoke before the tournament of his belief that one, at least, of the Big Four would contest the final. He explained last night: "It was always going to be hard to get rid of all four guys at the same time, let's just be honest. It was probably going to inevitably going to be one guy around, maybe two."
He added of the halves of the draw: "Novak did his end; I was hoping I was going to be the other one. So I'm very happy with that."
Andy Murray departed to Dimitrov and Rafael Nadal was shot down by Nick Kygrios of Australia but Federer, with 17 grand slam titles, and Djokovic, with six, will battle tomorrow for the right to add to that impressive collection. Raonic and Dimitrov have other battles to fight.
The Canadian must improve his all-round game to hope to win a grand slam. The Bulgarian needs to learn to strike at the proper moment. This seems simple but it can elude even the most talented.
Dimitrov was confident in defeat, however. "It's just a matter of jumping over that next hurdle," said Dimitrov. "I think to me it's just really clear how I look on those things. One more slam to go. You know, I'm going to have a high expectations."
His reference was to the US Open in August when the young guns of Dimitrov, Raonic, Kyrgios, 19, and Kei Nishikori, 24, will be on parade in New York.
But tomorrow in SW19 it will be a day yet again for the old guard.