A description has been issued of a man who was seen practising with Wimbledon tennis balls far beyond the confines of SW19. He is tall, dashing, well-mannered and looks good in all-white suits.
Maybe it’s not an offence against the etiquette to thwack the blessed fuzzy yellow spheres anywhere but at the All-England Cup but even if it was you sense the officials would make an exception for Roger Federer.
His Rogerness loves Wimbledon and Wimbers loves him right back. The Centre Court was in its usual state of high delirium when he made his entrance – so it was bordering on the tragic that all they saw of his rapier-quick groundstrokes was just 42 minutes before his opponent Alexandr Dolgopolov was forced to quit.
Player retirals became the issue of the afternoon – all the more so if you’d spent £56 on a ticket and were looking forward to seeing two of the men’s game’s big beasts in action, Novak Djokovic strolling to victory in a mere 40 minutes.
It must have been embarrassing for the Wimbledon hierarchy who in jest suggested the elite twosome go back out and play each other. Afterwards Federer said he’d never been part of such a double-whammy withdrawal before. “When I went out, I felt there was a bit of a letdown in the crowd. They couldn’t believe that it happened again, exactly the same situation,” he said.
“The [All-England Club] chairman said: ‘You guys should go out and play for another set and a half.’ I said: ‘Yeah, let me go and try to find Novak’. He was in the locker-room and I told him [but] it wasn’t going to happen.”
Just 42 minutes with the scoring concluding at 6-3, 6-0. But, wouldn’t you know, Federer still managed to contrive another milestone out of his curtailed afternoon, moving ahead of Jimmy Connors with his 85th Wimbledon win in the open era, a new record.
He has another one in his sights – to become the first man in history to win eight titles here. Hence all the practicing with Wimbledon balls on hard, fast grass wherever he could find it, having already decided to give the clay court season a miss so he could focus on that golden cup.
He didn’t get much chance to swing his racket wonderfully yesterday, his Ukrainian opponent telling him at the net he was in too much pain when serving.
Federer, who’d achieved a break, first game, said: “If you feel like it’s getting worse and you can hurt yourself even further, it is better to stop. The question always is, should they have started the match at all? That only the player can answer really. You hope that they would give up their spot for somebody else, even though they deserve to be in there, but fitness not allowing them.
“I feel for the crowd. They’re there to watch good tennis, proper tennis. At least they see the two of us [Federer and Djokovic] who gave it all they had. They saw other players that tried at least. It’s unfortunate that it happened today like this.”
Ranked 84th in the world, Dolgopolov is a zippy player who doesn’t hang about but he struggled to make an impact on the Federer serve, the most accurate in the men’s game. He was making a contribution to the afternoon – however fleetingly – and was performing gamely and joking with the umpire over the briskness of his adjudications, which almost rivalled the briskness of Dolgopolov’s shots, so it was a pity he had to wave the white flag.
For Federer sterner – longer – tests await. There’s the sense he’s been preparing for this particular Wimbledon for a while – not just in his avoidance of clay but his decision after losing in the semis in 2016 to take the rest of the season off. “Sometimes you have to reset,” he said. It was good to “relax and do other things, not think about tennis day-to-day”.
He added: “I’m really into tennis [but] the moment I leave this room I will get in the car to go home and be in a different place [where] I’m family, I’m a husband, I’m a dad. I’m easy, I’m a friend. I think I’ve done that always really well. But of course in the end I’m a tennis player, I’m a match player.” These last words – however politely delivered, and they were – sounded ominous. They were too much for the rest of the field at the Australian Open, won by Federer who at 35 was “refreshed and rejuvenated”.
Will “happy to be back” His Rogerness be too much for his opponents at Wimbledon? He’s certainly not disregarding three of them. Since 2002 the competition has been dominated by Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Federer. Maybe they should make a movie about the guys who combine “mind, fitness, tenacity, talent as well”.
They were tough to crack, he said with that winning smile. “Beat one of us, you might not beat the next.”
And this year at least one of them has been swotting – and swatting – with the official balls.