WIMBLEDON— When the draw was released last week for the worlds premier tennis tournament, it seemed as if Roger Federer had very little to worry about in the first couple of rounds. There was every indication that the top seed would sweep through his first couple of matches without any cause for consternation. The way I looked at it, Federer was going to have time to play his way into form, and an opportunity to get his bearings as he settled back into the proceedings at the tournament he cherishes more than any other. The widespread feeling among most tennis authorities was that Federer would be fully prepared for his first round meeting against the Colombian left-hander Alejandro Falla, a player the Swiss had beaten four times without a loss across their careers. Moreover, Federer had faced Falla twice in recent weeks, cutting down the 26-year-old 7-6 (4), 6-2, 6-4 in the second round of Roland Garros on the clay, and then crushing him 6-1, 6-2 in the round of 16 on grass in Halle.
But rather than having yet another routine first round meeting on the fabled Centre Court, the six time champion Federer had to fight for his life before recording a five set triumph over an adversary he should have cast aside with consummate ease. He was down two sets to love and trailed 0-40 at 4-4 in the third set, drifting within five points of an embarrassing loss four times in the critical ninth game of that set. After climbing out of that treacherous corner, Federer wandered into even more dangerous territory later as Falla served for the match at 5-4 in the fourth set. Although he thwarted his adversary and eventually found his form in the fifth and final set, Federer knew full well how easily he could have lost this contest, realized that he could have been sent out of the tournament by a player ranked 60th in the world who owned a 56-63 career match record, knew that he was highly fortunate to carve out a first round victory over a man who had a career mark of 11 wins and 14 losses at the majors.
Let me take you back to the match to review it in greater detail. From the early stages, the tempo was set largely by Falla. He kept swinging his lefty slice serve wide to Federers backhand, and the 16 time Grand Slam tournament champion was remarkably vulnerable off that side. Falla controlled the rallies with depth and angles off the forehand, and he exploited his flattened out two-hander crosscourt to draw countless mistakes from the Federer forehand. In turn, Falla read Federers serve beautifully, anticipating an astounding number of first serves and returning them with pace and depth. On top of that, he was very aggressive on his second serve returns, forcing the favorite onto defense repeatedly and seizing the initiative in the process.
At 5-5 in the opening set, Falla got the first service break of the match. He then fell behind 0-30 in the twelfth game but served the set out despite some apprehension, and found himself in the enviable position of being out in front of the man many consider the greatest player of all time. In the middle of the second set, Federer seemed ready to assert himself. Falla was serving at 2-3, 30-30, and Federer got just the right midcourt ball he wanted on his forehand side. An in form Federer would have taken that ball and struck it confidently into a corner to win the point on his terms, and might have taken control of the match right then and there. But Federer was not on song in this contest. He missed that routine shot, and Falla held on.
Now Falla played a magnificent return game to break Federer at 15 and establish a 4-3 lead. He was keeping Federer at bay from the backcourt, and seldom did he allow the top seed to have a chance to start running around his backhand to wallop inside-out forehands. Falla was taking away the play from Federer, pushing him around, taking the ball early off both sides and breaking his opponent down comprehensively. Falla had a tough game on serve at 4-3, but held on from deuce. Two games later, he served for a two sets to love lead, and his anxiety was unmistakably apparent. At 30-30, Federer lobbed him off the backhand, and Falla should have played a smash. But he let the ball drop, perhaps hoping it would fall wide. The ball was in, and a discombobulated Falla halt-heartedly went for a forehand crosscourt, missing badly.
Nonetheless, Falla took the next two points and arrived at set point. He approached deep and low to Federers backhand, and here the Swiss maestro made one of his finest shots of the match, lacing an immaculate backhand topspin pass crosscourt into a clear open space. Falla promptly garnered a second set point, but he gave it away. Federer threw in a desperate forehand slice, and Falla had too much time to think. He missed off the forehand. Falla made it to set point for the third time, tried a surprise serve-and-volley, but Federer was not caught off guard. He kept his backhand return low enough to induce an error on the volley from Falla.
Federer then earned himself another break point, but Falla wiped that away swiftly with a crosscourt forehand winner off Federers patented low backhand slice. For the fourth time, Falla got himself to set point, and in this case he took matters wisely into his own hands, pulling Federer out of position, making Roger play a difficult running forehand pass down the line. Falla had the net covered, and punched a forehand volley crosscourt into the vacant court. After much tension, Falla was in a commanding position, up two sets to love, with Federer surely reeling from a turn of events he could never have imagined.
At 2-3 in the third set, Falla served an ace down the T to save a break point, followed by a slice serve wide that Federer could not handle, followed by another ace down the T. Falla had yet to be broken. At 4-4, Federer was downright nervous. He sliced a backhand meekly into the net for 0-15, sent a forehand half volley off a deep return into the net, and then missed wildly with a crosscourt forehand well beyond the baseline. Here was Falla, right where he wanted to be, ahead triple break point with a chance conceivably to serve for the match. But, at 0-40, he was guilty of a critical mistake. Having made a terrific return of serve, he set up a routine backhand crosscourt, a shot he had executed almost impeccably all match long. But, in this instance, unprovoked, he drove his two-hander long.
Federer steadied himself admirably after that gift from Falla. He went with a low backhand chip down the line to draw Falla in, then ripped a backhand pass cleanly crosscourt for a winner. Now, at 30-40, he stepped in for a crackling forehand winner off a short return. Federer had erased three crucial break points, and he held on for 5-4. Falla was still in decent shape, needing only two more holds to put himself in a tie-break and perhaps close out the contest. But, in the tenth game, he was broken for the first time in the match, missing seven of eight first serves. He saved a break point at 30-40 with a sparkling forehand winner directed behind Federer, who was left stranded. But Federer promptly created a second break point opportunity, which he sealed with a dazzling forehand winner down the line. Just like that, Fallas lead had been cut to two sets to one.
But, surprisingly, Federer opened the fourth set with perhaps his worst service game of the match, releasing three double faults. On the last point of that game, Falla attacked, played a safe overhead down the middle and tamely retreated. But then he went for broke off the forehand and came through with an inside-out winner. Falla had the break for 1-0. The momentum of the match was back on his side. Federer had been halted in his tracks. Falla protected that service break as stubbornly as he could, but at 4-3 he trailed 30-40. Sticking to the tactics that had taken him this far, he swung another accurate sliced serve wide to Federers vulnerable backhand. Federer netted the chipped return. Falla moved to game point and was drawn in by a short chipped return from Federer. He handled that shot well, driving the ball deep to Federers backhand and coming in. Federers passing shot was miss-hit, and well wide. Falla was ahead 5-3, closing in on a dreamlike triumph.
Federer held easily in the ninth game, and so it was time for Falla to serve for the match at 5-4. He had been handling his nerves remarkably well until now, but here Falla was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the moment. He drove a two-hander long under no pressure for 0-15. Then he bungled a forehand approach wide to make it 0-30. Federer was still tight himself, and he missed a topspin backhand down the line. Falla was back to 15-30, three points away from an historic victory. But he missed his first serve, got passive, and Federer sensed his chance. He went with a backhand drop shot, which Falla could barely get back into play. Federer had the court at his disposal for a forehand, rolling his shot safely for the winner. Falla then aced Federer for 30-40, but he got tentative again on the next point, allowing Federer a rare chance to step around for the big inside-out forehand. Federer did just that, forcing a forehand long from Falla.
It was 5-5, but gamely Falla went right back to work. He got to break point, one point away from a second chance to serve for the match. He wasted this one monumentally. Set up for a midcourt ball off the backhand, he should have stuck with the play that had worked so well for him throughout the match. He needed to rip that ball flat crosscourt, which would have forced Federer to play the running forehand that had let him down so frequently throughout the contest. But Falla tried to go behind Federer with a down the line shot, and missed it. Federer held on, ending that game with a dazzling backhand drop shot winner. But Falla held on himself to set up a tie-break. If Falla could have used all of his resources at this stage, he still could have come away with a four set win. But he was spent, Federer was soaring, and the Swiss took that sequence emphatically 7-1. Federer played four fine points and made no unforced errors, while Falla made three damaging unforced errors.
The match was essentially over. Federer rolled through the fifth set without the loss of a game, avoiding humiliation, winning on willpower, surviving because he always refuses to surrender. Federer— who won the match 5-7, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (1), 6-0— has long been a much better competitor than most observers realize, displaying a depth of resolve few players can match, salvaging victories from near certain defeats. Falla sized up this match well. Asked about his state of mind when he served for the match, he said, I wasnt thinking too much through the whole match. But at that moment, not just me but everybody can start thinking when you are really close to beating Federer. And on the other side, when hes down like that like he was today, he doesnt give you any points. You have to make it, because hes not going to miss.
That was the essential story of the match. Federer— far away from the top of his game, his confidence significantly diminished by not winning a tournament since the Australian Open, his forehand highly vulnerable— was at the mercy of Falla, especially when the Colombian served for the match in the fourth set. Federer indeed refused to give much away in the tight corners of the contest. He was simply making an unaccomplished opponent feel his presence. Federer could not get away with that philosophy when he lost to Robin Soderling at Roland Garros, and he wont be able to get by that way against his worthiest rivals down the stretch of this tournament. He won this tennis match today largely on his reputation rather than his talent. He triumphed by inviting his opponent to falter. The old adage that tennis matches are lost rather than won has never been more fitting than it was today.
It is still entirely possible that Federer could soar to another level across this fortnight, put this inauspicious start behind him, play a much better brand of tennis from here on in. But gaining that consistency, playing with his old sense of conviction, rising to the standards he used to reach so regularly, will not be easy for Federer. His record here at Wimbledon speaks for itself. He has captured six titles in the last seven years, and in his lone loss he was two points away from an astonishing five set comeback triumph over Nadal in 2008.
The fact remains that Federer— indomitable though he may be— has had an increasingly difficult time on these lawns at the All England Club. After winning his first four Wimbledon championships without ever being stretched to his absolute limits, Federer was in deep jeopardy against Nadal in the 2007 final before securing a five set win. And after he lost to Nadal two years ago, Federer was in the darkest of corners before toppling Andy Roddick 16-14 in the fifth set of the 2009 final. If he is going to tie Pete Samprass modern mens record of seven Wimbledon singles titles this year, Federer will surely need to elevate his game far above and beyond his current level. That would be no mean feat.
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