Wimbledon over-achiever, underdog? Roger Federer rolls into quarters
“You are allowed to wear a bandana till you turn 40,” the commentator joked, as Roger Federer pushed back a mop of hair that had slipped outside that white symbol of a rebel, as he does while receiving. The Swiss, who turns 40 on August 8, the last day of the Tokyo Olympics where he will play, though is as conventional as it can get on the Wimbledon grass courts.
It was Manic Monday, the last edition with a break on mid Sunday. The man with a record eight Wimbledon titles though didn’t show signs of a break with tradition. He became the oldest in the Open Era—that is 52 years—to reach the quarters at the grass court Grand Slam, extending his record of winning at least four rounds to 18.
Federer this year though has been the over-achiever and Wimbledon underdog rolled into one. The centre court faithful, allowed in big numbers after restrictions due to Covid were relaxed in the UK, have kept up the ‘Roger Mania’, a couple of notches higher than the usual polite version typical of Wimbledon.
The predominant sentiment seems to be the ‘I was there’ feeling, for a comeback man—a double knee surgery had kept him out for 16 months—whose every game could potentially be a grand farewell at a venue where he lifted his first Grand Slam trophy 18 years ago.
It has been a tricky, strange and joyful Wimbledon for the Swiss watchers. The grass court artist of the modern era needed the clay courts of French Open to get whatever little match practice he could. John McEnroe was among those to criticise him for using a Grand Slam as a sparring opportunity following his fourth-round pullout.
But it has worked. At Wimbledon, Federer has surmounted one less known opponent after another who came in swinging only to be served a reminder that the joint record holder for titles knows every twist and turn of a Grand Slam course.
On Monday, it was Italian Lorenzo Sonego’s turn to receive a master class in Federer’s 7-5 6-4 6-2 win, in just over two hours. A match completed under the centre court roof in rain reflected a privilege accorded to Wimbledon’s biggest draw card for almost two decades. While a body that has held up through the first week is proof of timelessness.
He is likely to run into second seed Daniil Medvedev in the quarter-finals. His opponent was not decided on Monday though the Russian was up 6-2, 6-7, 6-3, 3-4 against Poland’s Hubert Hurkacz on Court 2 when the match was halted due to rain.
Yet, it has been a different, strange Wimbledon for Federer. The former world No. 1 survived a first round scare before Adrian Mannarino retired injured at two sets apiece, having led 2-1. Though he remains the first citizen of tennis—a Swiss shoe brand unveiled its Roger Pro in March—there is no shoe-swagger (remember those printed messages in the past?).
The joint record holder for Grand Slam titles has entered each game with the fans anticipating nothing. Federer is supposed to roll on, though the centre court this year has been more slippery. His young rivals have played fearlessly, perhaps reminded that it is the 20th anniversary of Federer’s own epic fourth-round win over Pete Sampras. The US seven-time winner was only 29 then.
The fans have been lucky to watch the intriguing pattern of play. Federer starts slow. Lorenzo won 10 points in a row (though it didn’t fetch him the first set). Then tests out his big weapons, which at times come back as exquisite winners from his opponents.
Then he draws the line.
He quickly reminds all who the showman is, setting up points at will, pulling out his single-handed backhand and letting the forehand, especially the wristy, crosscourt shot, lord over any return that is even a few inches out of place.
His serve not really tested after the first round, Federer has put pressure on his opponents; his unusual errors suggest a slowing down and focus issues. That gives his rivals hope, though not much conviction.
Facing Federer at Wimbledon means his rivals need not have to deal with anxiety. No real pressure of defeat. That has led to entertaining tennis, especially in the later stages of the last three matches where Federer has looked to test parts of his game that need more polishing, checking the range rather than wrapping up the point quickly.
There was a brief late rally that left Sonego smiling, defensive with each return and acknowledging that Federer was using him more as a sparring partner for bigger battles.
On Monday, told that only his next round opponent was not decided, there was first an unconvincing “that is unfair”. Federer then joked: “These guys are young, they can recover. Not a problem for them. I hope it rains again tomorrow.”
In whatever shape his next opponent arrives, the centre court and beyond will be happy to cheer Wimbledon’s greatest champion and underdog rolled into one.
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