Sunday 22 April 2018

Tennis: Federer survives mammoth scare

Roger Federer on his way to victory over Colombia's Alejandro Falla at Wimbledon yesterday.
Roger Federer on his way to victory over Colombia's Alejandro Falla at Wimbledon yesterday.

Mark Hodgkinson at Wimbledon

THE All England Club could have announced plans to concrete over the grass and that they are considering selling the naming rights to Centre Court to a fast-food chain and that scarcely would have added to the air of shock and confusion around the grounds as Roger Federer came within three points of losing his opening match to Alejandro Falla, a journeyman from Colombia.

It was almost the most astonishing result in Wimbledon's history, the day that Federer went out of the tournament before any of the British men -- there are only two this summer -- had even stepped on to the lawns.

Lunchtime on the first day of the Wimbledon fortnight, and Federer looked all discombobulated out there on the grass.

If Falla had held on to his delivery when he served for the match at 5-4 in the fourth set, the rest of this fortnight would have been Federer-less, and Wimbledon without Federer is a bit like a cuckoo clock without a cuckoo.

Falla, the world No 60, someone who prefers hard courts to grass courts, who has never gone beyond the third round of a grand slam or won a title on the full circuit, ran a lawn-mower through all the pre-match predictions that he would be squelched by Federer on the day that the Swiss was starting his attempt to put himself level with Pete Sampras on seven Wimbledon titles.

Falla, whose name means 'fault' in Spanish, was swinging his racket at almost everything, and landing almost everything, too.

There were very few 'fallas' from him, and Federer didn't know how to counter him.

Federer came very close to becoming only the second defending champion of the modern era to lose in the first round, after Lleyton Hewitt's defeat to Ivo Karlovic at the 2003 championships. This was Federer the Fortunate.

"I did get lucky today," Federer said. He scrabbled his way to parity at two sets all, then the left-handed Falla, dispirited at having failed to close out the match, faded away in the fifth.

Whatever the Swiss-German is for phew, Federer should have been saying that as he returned to the locker-room having reached the second round with a 5-7 4-6 6-4 7-6 6-0 victory.

To think that tennis had been surprised by Federer's defeat to Hewitt in the final of the pre-Wimbledon tournament in Halle. If Falla had closed this out, Federer's defeat in Germany would have been a piffling little result.

For Federer, first-round matches at Wimbledon are supposed to be gentle occasions, essentially exhibition matches when everyone glories in his talent, and there is generally more interest in what he has picked out for his outfit than in his opponent. The man on the other side of the net is nothing more than to be the foil for Federer's brilliance.

Yet that was not how this one played out. Falla, who lost to Federer at his last two tournaments, at the French Open and at Halle, had plainly decided that he wasn't going to be anyone's plaything on the grass. He was going to have a go and see where it took him.


It took him into a two-sets-to-love lead. This was all very different to their previous meeting on Wimbledon's Centre Court, in the second round of the 2004 tournament, when Federer pulverised Falla for the loss of just three games.

Ever since that summer, Falla had suggested that that afternoon on Centre Court had been one of the highlights of his career on the tour.

That day, Falla was a tourist on the lawns, just taking in the sights, and enjoying a day out playing on the sport's grandest stage.

This time, Falla had come to play and he could have won this in straight sets, as at 4-4 in the third, Federer was serving at 0-40. But Federer staved off those three break points, and then a fourth, which he won with a neat backhand overhead, and he broke Falla in the next game for the set.

When Falla served for the fourth set and the match, he was broken to 30.

Soon there was more danger for Federer, who saved a break point at 5-5. Yet the top seed played some tight tennis in the tie-break, dropping just one point. In the fifth set, Falla was not competitive.

From serving for a place in tennis history in that fourth set, Falla went down 6-0. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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