Tuesday 17 October 2017

Wimbledon: Stoic, resilient and pitiless as ever -- Federer prevails despite back injury

Kevin Garside

Drama is stalking Roger Federer. On Friday it was manifest in the shape of a tall Frenchman, Julien Benneteau, who walked Federer to the edge of the cliff before falling to his own doom in the final set.

Yesterday, the impediment was medical, a dodgy back forcing him from the court to seek emergency treatment. This being Federer he bore his discomfiture with stoic forbearance, apologised to his opponent, Xavier Malisse, for any inconvenience, then put him away ruthlessly just the same.

Who knows by what mechanism the great players overcome adversity? The injury had effectively wrapped Federer in a straitjacket so much did it hinder his rhythm and flow, yet still he found the resolve to work his way to a 7-6 6-1 4-6 6-3 victory.

"It was a bit of a shock at the start of the first set. I played on it for three or four games then asked for the doctor and decided to have treatment inside. I had to apologise to Xavier. I know how hard it is to play when someone is injured. It is difficult to play like that. One of those things," Federer said.

Federer made it to 3-4 before calling for assistance. It was not immediately clear what was troubling him. The cold, blustery conditions made fluent shot-making impossible. Federer's timing was off, but not markedly. His decision to leave the court suggested a significant problem.

There was no immediate relief on his return, with Malisse breaking to lead 6-5 and serve for the set.

Federer's visceral response suggested a cure had been found. He broke back to save the set then ran away with the tie-break as the first rains of the day began to fall. The players were off for 46 minutes, time enough to close the roof, which would have guaranteed a finish without further disruption.

Though the forecasters had no faith in a dry afternoon, the roof monitor took the risk and the match resumed under a brooding sky instead of a 1,000-tonne canopy designed to protect against precisely these conditions.

It was his lucky day. The downpour held off until 5.0, by which time Federer was tucking into his afternoon tea. Malisse appeared to be playing himself as much as Federer. The loss of a point would trigger an internal inquest.

The second set disappeared in a blur of unforced errors from him and deft touches from Federer.

Malisse announced himself to the British audience a decade ago with a five-set win against Greg Rusedski en route to the semi-finals. He roused himself sufficiently yesterday to break Federer in the opening game of the third set.

Federer, clearly labouring again, could not fashion a response. He lost his serve a second time and at the end of the set was forced to leave the court once more. Malisse broke in the opening game of the fourth to raise the prospect of another five-set ordeal for the player advancing on a seventh Wimbledon championship and 17th Grand Slam title.

But a break in the fourth game saw Federer back on terms. A second break brought victory into view. With the finish line in sight, Federer galloped towards the tape. The ace with which he closed out the match seemed like an act of cruelty against an opponent who had showed him commendable patience. That's Federer. Pitiless. He was already looking toward the next match. The ace was for Russian Mikhail Youzhny, whom he faces in the quarters tomorrow.

"The back is okay," he said. "Over 15 years on tour, the back hurts sometimes. You hope it doesn't strike in a big match. I was in a lot of pain and I was in big trouble at 6-5 when he served for the first set. The treatment helped. If this is as bad as it gets, I'm happy. "

In other news, Andy Murray will attempt to complete a fourth-round win over Marin Cilic today after rain forced play at Wimbledon to be abandoned yesterday evening.

The British No 1 had taken a firm hold on the match, leading 7-5 3-1, when the drizzle became much more persistent, and he and Cilic left Court One just before 5.0.

Top seed Novak Djokovic sauntered into the quarter-finals with a 6-3 6-1 6-3 demolition of countryman Viktor Troicki. (© Independent News Service)

Wimbledon,

Live, TG4/BBC1/BBC2, from 11.30

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