Artful Roger was match point against Novak Djokovic when he allowed what would have been a ninth men’s singles title slip from his grasp.
In their darkest moments those fans – it’s Federer, so let’s call them aficionados – might have wondered if that was the last they would ever see of him, given he was about to turn 38.
But staring down the barrel of the big four-oh, he was back at the scene of so many glistening triumphs and groundstroke masterclasses. In truth, as even the most devout of his admirers will admit, this wasn’t classic Fed before his French first-round opponent was forced to retire hurt.
“I definitely got a bit lucky,” said Federer, conceding that Adrian Mannarino had been threatening to put him out of the tournament before a nasty slip on the grass.
“I had to mix up my game because he was getting too comfortable on the baseline and taking charge out there.”
Federer stressed the match had had a “terrible ending, one I don’t like to see” and was alarmed to learn during his post-match press conference that Serena Williams had just been forced to quit the tournament after taking a tumble on Centre.
Was the roof making the court extra slippy?
“The referee asked before my match what I thought of it,” Federer said. “The surface seemed normal, but always in the opening games of Wimbledon you have to move very, very carefully.”
A bit like a Swiss army knife, Federer would seem able to do everything. His career has been an unerring succession of peaks – yes, just like a Toblerone.
On Tuesday there were glimpses of greatness, most often in the fourth set, but also some shots leaving his racket in a most inelegant fashion. For those lucky enough to be snuggled up underneath the roof on a damp day elsewhere at the All-England Club, this all added to the drama.
Mannarino hails from Soisy-sous-Monmorency, which could be a retirement village for Banshees and other equally ancient punk rockers.
Celebrating his 33rd birthday – so just a boy, really – he managed to stay with the master craftsman early in the contest until that scintillating forehand brought Federer an opening and then a rally featuring three backhands – long, short, long and devastating – clinched him the first set.
The shaven-headed Mannarino hadn’t won in six previous encounters between the pair.
It wasn’t that he was playing badly, simply that he was playing Federer. But for the latter not everything worked.
In the second set Federer had Mannarino running hither and yon – scuttling up Henman Hill, it seemed, then down to the merch store to check on supplies of official green-and-purple gonks – only to fluff the drop-shot finish that everyone anticipated. Cue sighs from the forlorn faithful.
Because Federer is normally so aesthetically pleasing, the sclaffs – and there were a good few here – jar more than usual.
When they happened, though, he didn’t seem unduly perturbed. He simply flicked sweat from his brow with a delicate finger and tugged gently at his racket strings as if Centre Court was an orchestral concert hall and he was readying himself for his next solo. Both tics are entwined in the great Wimbledon tapestry.
But Mannarino – “a dangerous opponent who got better and better as the match went on,” conceded Federer – wasn’t standing back to admire the performance.
He took the second set to a tie-break and won it. There was a bit of luck when one of his volleys spun on the net cord and toppled his way. For Federer, though, this wasn’t the juncture for yet more loose hits to creep into his game.
In the first game of the third set Mannarino twice more found the top of the net, which must have been irritating to Federer who promptly lost his serve.
He quickly broke back only to lose it again. Federer was in trouble.
At 2-5 down he played a genius shot – licking a lob while facing the wrong way – but Mannarino, serving strongly, playing coolly with a smile and making Federer do the scurrying, held serve to take the set.
In the first of the fourth there was a scintillating rally, won by Federer to hold serve, and the aficionados cheered lustily, hoping to inspire their idol to extricate himself from the tight spot. For once he was fortunate with the net cord and, to even louder roars, broke Mannarino.
After a fairly concerted bout of waywardness, Federer seemed to be back in the groove as volleys whistled into the intended corners.
He didn’t need a hold-up, caused by Mannarino’s slip, but, jarring the right knee, the latter needed it even less.
Treatment was administered, but the patient was moving gingerly, if at all, and couldn’t stop Federer taking the contest to a fifth set.
“I’d turned things round a little,” Federer said. “And it would have been interesting to see where that might have taken me in the match.”
It wasn’t to be – too bad. Federer felt for the wounded man, having needed surgery on his right knee since his last appearance on Centre.
“I just hope he’s not out for too long,” he said. Only one more point was played before Mannarino threw in le towel.
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