Wimbledon 2010: Federer fights back from brink of stunning exit to fend off Falla
• Roger Federer had to dig deep to defeat Alejandro Falla. Picture: Getty Images
The reigning champion had been beaten here as recently as 2003, when Lleyton Hewitt lost to Ivo Karlovic. But Hewitt had won the title only once, and enjoyed nothing like the legendary status that Federer has acquired.
Alejandro Falla, a clay-courter from Colombia, was supposed to be no more than a staging post on Federer's quest to win a seventh Wimbledon title and equal Pete Sampras's record. Instead, he came close to ending the Swiss great's campaign almost before it had begun.
The man from Cali has won eight minor titles in his career, six of them on clay, two on hardcourt. He had played Federer three times recently, and never even came close to causing an upset.
Yesterday, however, he won not just one set – that would have counted as no more than a blip – but the first two. What is more, he came within a handful of points of taking the third set too, with Federer fighting back from 0-40 to hold his serve and go 5-4 ahead.
Even once the defending champion closed out the third set and the Centre Court crowd began to relax, presuming normal service had been restored, Falla refused to fold. In the fourth set, too, he came within inches of victory, only to have his service broken when he was serving at 5-4 up. From there, Federer went on to win the tiebreak to level at two sets apiece, and then raced through the decider to win 5-7, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (7-1), 6-0.
It was only the sixth occasion in close to 900 top-level matches that the top seed had staged a successful fightback from two sets down, and afterwards he admitted there had been instants in the match when he thought he was going to lose.
"Yeah, a few times," he said. "Was it in the third I was down 0-40? That was the moment I felt was the toughest, because if I hadn't come out of that game, I don't think I would have broken the next one. I had more belief I was going to break him in the fourth.
"So it was a tough match, you know. He played really well and I struggled early on, but came through, which is most important."
By the time he delivered that considered verdict to the media, Federer had resumed the air of unflappability which has been part of his aura since he won his first title here in 2003. During his contest with Falla, however, he was anything but serene, especially in those opening two sets when he was stunned by the quality of the South American's play.
Federer was nowhere near his best at that stage, which almost goes without saying: when he is at his best, almost no-one, and certainly not a player so far down the rankings as Falla, can live with him. But, other than the odd poor service game, he was not playing conspicuously badly; not littering his display with basic errors.
Instead, Falla was simply in inspired form, only faltering when on the very brink of victory. He needed treatment for a groin strain at the start of the third set, but refused to claim that had played a part in the result.
"I had a contracture on my leg, but I took a treatment in the two breaks. I felt okay after that. I knew I was playing very well. I just wanted to go out to the court and play my best."
Other than accepting that his opponent had played out of his skin, Federer hinted at one reason he had struggled to come to terms with what was going on: the sheer unfamiliarity of it all. "I don't remember going through five sets in a first round. For me it's not normal, especially at Wimbledon.
"But still I was able to find a way. That's most important right now. Doesn't matter how I felt out there. Didn't feel great, that's for sure."
Novak Djokovic became the second leading man to scrape his way into round two with a five-set win over Olivier Rochus in a late-night thriller on Centre Court. The third seed looked on his way out when the roof was deployed with Rochus two sets to one up, but he fought his way back under the lights to clinch a 4-6, 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory. The finish time of 10.58pm was the latest in Wimbledon history, beating the 10.38pm conclusion of Andy Murray's victory over Stanislas Wawrinka last year, and came with only two minutes to spare before the 11pm deadline for play to stop.
Andy Roddick cantered into the second round after demolishing Rajeev Ram 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 in an all-American showdown on Court One. The fifth seed and three-time Wimbledon runner-up took control from the start when he broke Ram in the second game with a wonderful passing shot catching the eye. Some dynamic play at the net helped him complete a successful first set and the second opened with Roddick breaking once again. In a flash the 27-year-old's superior power had swept him 3-0 ahead, with one monster serve registering 142mph on the speed gun.
Ram, seeking his first grand slam match victory, offered greater resistance in the third set but was broken again in the seventh game when his range deserted him. It did not take long for Roddick to wrap up victory, with the world number seven hitting a blistering ace that summed up his performance.
"I played well and returned well. I'm really happy to be here," he said. "This place should inspire anyone who likes tennis. It's a privilege to be here."
Russian seventh seed Nikolay Davydenko was another big name who fought back from the dead as he somehow fashioned a five-set victory against South African Kevin Anderson.
Davydenko looked to be on his way out when world No 95 Anderson built up a two-set lead and inched in front in the third. But he stayed in the battle and won a tie-break to revive his hopes before resisting Anderson over the next two tight sets to clinch a 3-6, 6-7, (3/7) 7-6 (7/3) 7-5, 9-7 victory.