Old masters Federer and Nadal show no sign of fading from picture

Roger Federer salutes the fans after his first-round victory.
Roger Federer salutes the fans after his first-round victory.
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T wenty-four hours before, two mystery blonds had blazed into the All-England Club, the big noises of the new brigade, only to exit with a whimper. So when the old brigade of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal made their entrances yesterday they might have been tempted to ask: “Did we miss something?”

They wouldn’t be so ungallant, of course. The talent of the blonds, Alex Zverev and Stefan Tsitsipas, isn’t a mystery to them, but after the opening day the hype swirling round these young contenders will have bemused the crowds. In the tournament build-up, Zverev smouldered in a fashion shoot and Tsitsipas in a long read declared: “I like to observe and listen to nature. I like to reflect, to think.” Based on the hair, they could have been finalists in a Bjorn Borg-alike contest but, after first-round defeats, the business end of Wimbledon remains out of their reach. Plenty of time to think now, lads.

Federer (dark-haired, does he ever sweat?) and Nadal (dark-haired, sweats for Spain) brought no less than 184 titles to the courts. The promise of the next generation is still just that: promise. That’s 20 Grand Slams for Federer, including eight titles in SW19, and 18 for Nadal, pictured.The Spaniard is 33, the Swiss turns 38 next month. How long can this tennis tyranny last? For a while yet, it would seem.

Federer is the idea of perfection for many women if they were asked to construct, using A.I., the tennis player they’d most like to watch. Nadal would be the choice of many men. Neither produced perfect performances but these weren’t really required, although both showed some rustiness in their opening sets, Federer losing his.

The Swiss master eventually beat South Africa’s Lloyd Harris 3-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 and will next meet Jay Clarke, one of yesterday’s record-breaking Brits. Nadal disposed of Yuichi Sugita of Japan and now renews strained acquaintance with Nick Kyrgios, the Australian firecracker.

Harris was a bouncy character with frizzy hair underneath a back-to-front cap. A formidable physical specimen in the South African style. A big boomer who would sometimes overhit but when he got it right and the ball sizzled past the legend he would be up on his cushioned heels, like a veld version of Tigger, seeking the approval of his box.

“He was doing a good job of returning me and my legs weren’t moving and things weren’t happening,” admitted Federer about that first set on Centre Court. “But, with my experience, I stayed calm. I know I have some other tricks in the bag.”

He can say that again. When the afternoon sun broke through the clouds it warmed up the grass – Federer too. He broke early in the second set and almost effortlessly took command of the net. The familiar feather-light touch returned. Crosscourts hummed and dropshots died on Harris’s side. He wasn’t bouncing anymore.

Over on No 1 Court Nadal faced a different challenge. Where Harris was big and rangy, Sugita was compact and punchy. He broke the Spaniard immediately and Nadal’s early problems were almost identical to those of his Big Four contemporary. Perhaps he was communicating with Federer via secret soundwaves reserved for those involved in the greatest rivalry tennis has ever known: “You not putting away your volleys? Me neither.”

But eventually Nadal got into his groove just like Federer and he prevailed by 6-3, 6-1, 6-3. “It was a tough 50 minutes at the beginning,” Nadal said.

“I started love-30. Then I lost 11 points in a row. Then I was in a situation almost facing three set points. But I was able to save them and after winning that game the match changed a lot. It was honestly a good start for me winning straight sets against a guy who knows how to play on grass.”

Federer was asked about the casualty rate among the much-fancied young contenders including Zverev, Tsitsipas and also Dominic Thiem who fell yesterday, and there was an air of disappointment in the elder statesman’s response. “It’s surprising, of course,” he said. “It’s not like they were unseeded. Any top-ten guy who loses in the first week… I don’t care who the opponent is, it’s going to be a bit of a story. For that number to lose this early, it’s too many.”

Tsitsipas, for one, has questioned the work ethic of his generation. Though he probably meant the criticism generally, not just in tennis, he called kids “lazy”. When Federer was asked about sacrifices, and the high times he might have missed to get to the top, he said he wasn’t able to “party like a rock star” but didn’t regret this. “There were maybe two years which marked my life in the biggest possible way, leaving home at 14, staying with a different family, not being able to speak French
but I would do it again. It was all worth it.”

So, anyone else fancy a tilt at these tennis godheads or are you all too busy having fun?