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Federer admits relief after battling past dogged Falla

It was Roger Federer, but not as we know him, at Wimbledon yesterday as the Swiss escaped from the brink of defeat after being run ragged by a Colombian firebrand playing the match of his life on Centre Court.

Alejandro Falla was expected to be cannon fodder, an obliging punch bag, as the top seed oiled his wheels at the start of a challenge for a record-equalling seventh men's singles title at SW19, but he almost scored one of the greatest ever shocks at the famous venue.

On a first day of action that spanned 11 hours, French Open champion Francesca Schiavone became the victim of the first shock, the Italian losing 6-7 7-5 6-1 to Russia's Vera Dushevina.

Long after dark, with the Centre Court roof closed and the lights beaming, men's third seed Novak Djokovic then survived a similar fate to Federer, reeling off the last six games to beat Belgian Olivier Rochus 4-6 6-2 3-6 6-4 6-2.

Nearly 15,000 ticket holders gathered to see Federer stride out on Centre Court's verdant lawn, expecting an exhibition of shot-making from the 16-time grand slam champion.

Instead they watched in awe and growing disbelief as Falla, ranked 60th in the world, produced a fierce onslaught to blaze into a two-set lead and serve for glory in the fourth.

The records will show that the Swiss prevailed 5-7 4-6 6-4 7-6 6-0, but for long periods of a gripping match you were half expecting a security guard to walk on court and check the 28-year-old Federer's accreditation.

A steady stream of limp backhands, untimely double faults and shanked forehands gave the impression that a Federer impersonator had invaded Centre Court, although that would be to diminish the 26-year-old Falla, who played with courage, skill and power before capitulating in the decider.

"My whole game was in disarray," said Federer, whose 100pc record against Falla included a Wimbledon win in 2004 when he dropped just three games.

"There was definitely a bit of luck involved. I definitely got lucky. He's unconventional. He doesn't look like much, but he definitely plays very solid and plays very uncomfortable."

Federer's narrow escape set Wimbledon abuzz as the 124th edition of the championships began on a warm, cloudy day in southwest London.

He was not the only seed in trouble. Russia's seventh seed Nikolay Davydenko also went two sets down against South Africa's Kevin Anderson before clawing back to win 3-6 6-7 7-6 7-5 9-7.

Marin Cilic, the 11th seed, fell to Germany's Florian Mayer but there were few alarms for 2002 champion Lleyton Hewitt and last year's runner-up Andy Roddick as they made the second round.

Up on the grass bank dubbed Henman Hill, which was mercifully free of the droning vuvuzelas that have been the soundtrack to the World Cup, fans -- some dressed in national football shirts -- squinted at the big screen as the Federer drama unfolded.

At one stage chants of "Roger, Roger" rang out on the normally reserved Centre Court as the champion fought like a caged tiger to fend off Falla, whose name was fittingly pronounced as "Fire" by the chair umpire.

The left-handed Falla, who lost to Federer at Halle last week, and in the French Open, played like a man possessed, breaking serve at 5-5 to move one set ahead.

Falla wasted three set points at 5-4 in the second, but Federer kept misfiring and, when a fourth chance arrived, Falla made no mistake.

Even when Federer grabbed the third set, Falla refused to buckle and was the better player in the fourth. However, when serving for the biggest win of his career at 5-4 he wavered and Federer finally shook off the shackles.

The Swiss took the tiebreak 7-1 and needed just 27 minutes to sprint through the decider.