Tennis fans better start learning how to pronounce the name of Alejandro Falla, because the 26-year-old Colombian almost pulled off one of the greatest Wimbledon upsets of all time on Monday afternoon, when he took defending champion and No. 1 seed Roger Federer to five sets.
The bigger tennis fans among you will know Falla from his Davis Cup successes over the years, but those who only follow tennis casually may not even have heard of this big-hitting lefty. Some may remember his name only because Federer beat him in the French Open a couple of months ago.
Still, nobody in the world saw this near miss coming. Nobody.
Falla—born in Bogota, Columbia, and now living in California—had only been past the second round of a Grand Slam once in his career, and he is yet to win a major ATP title. He is No. 60 in the world rankings and came into Wimbledon with just a 9-9 record in 2010. His career earnings sit at just over $1 million. Compare this to Federer, who has won 62 titles—including a record-breaking 16 Grand Slams—and an incredible $56 million in tournament winnings alone.
On Monday, on the lush grass of Wimbledon's centre court, that all counted for naught, as Falla turned in the performance of a lifetime to almost beat off one of the best players in the history of the sport. Falla took the first two sets 7-5, 6-4, but Federer charged back to win the next three 6-4, 7-6, 6-0.
What is lost in that scoreline is that Falla called for a trainer after taking the second set and almost had a chance to win the contest in straight sets. Falla was 0-40 up on the Federer serve at 4-4 in the third set, but Federer clawed his way out of the deepest of holes to save the break points and eventually win the set.
But it was almost not enough. This was not the Federer who was 51-5 at SW19. It was different than before.
Federer had rallied back from two sets down five times in his career before—in the first round of the US Open in 2000 against Peter Wessels, in the second round of the French Open to Sargis Sargsian, in the final at Miami in 2005, when he rallied to beat Rafa Nadal, in the round of 16 in Australia against Thomas Berdych, and at Roland Garros last year against Tommy Haas—but he was powerless for the first two hours against the inspired Colombian who caught fire at the most opportune time.
With the victory Federer avoids becoming the first defending champion to lose in the first round of a Grand Slam since Lleyton Hewitt went out here at Wimbledon seven years ago, and he narrowly avoids joining the likes of Pat Rafter (1999), Boris Becker (1997), and Roscoe Tanner (1977), who also went out in the opening match of a Slam they had won 12 months before.
Falla was very effective with his cross-court backhand, and he hit a number of sweet passing shots that left the No. 1 seed looking bemused. Falla was not afraid to go to the Federer forehand on his second serve, and he served to Federer's backhand in the ad court with great success. The Colombian hung with Federer from the baseline, and there were moments when he ran the 16-time Grand Slam champion ragged, even on the Federer serve.
Federer, on the other hand, never really got a sniff on the Falla serve. It took 24 games, from the third game in the first set to the sixth game in the third set, for Federer to get a break point opportunity, and every time Federer seemed to have a small advantage on the Columbian's serve, he was not able to capitalize.
But what do we know about the minnow who slayed the giant?
Top Five Previous results
June 2006: Wimbledon—Defeated Nikolay Davydenko (Ranked No. 6) 2-6, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (8), 6-3.
March 2007: ATP Masters Series Miami, USA—Defeated Tommy Haas (Ranked No. 9) 6-4, 6-4.
October 2007: Lyon, France—Defeated Ivan Ljubicic (ranked No. 14) 7-5, 6-7 (3), 7-5.
May, 2008: French Open—Defeated Ivo Karlovic (ranked No. 21) 3-6, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (6), 5-7, 6-4.
January, 2010: Brisbane, Australia—Defeated Jeremy Chardy (ranked No. 32) 6-4, 6-4.
According to his ATP profile, Falla has been playing tennis since he picked up a racket 20 years ago with his father. He turned pro in 2000, made his Davis Cup debut the following year, reached back-to-back Colombian Futures finals in 2002, and won three Challenger titles in '03. Falla made his Grand Slam debut in 2004, and he made it to the second rounds of Roland Garros and Wimbledon, losing to David Nalbandian and Roger Federer respectively.
In 2006 he became the first Colombian to break into the top 100 in a decade, and he picked up another Challenger title in Bogota. Federer knocked him out of the second round of the French Open in convincing manner, and Kohlschreiber did the same at Wimbledon just days after Falla took his first Top-10 scalp in Nikolay Davydenko. His second-round jinx at Slams continued, as he went out to Dmitry Tursunov at the US Open late in the year, but his overall growth continued as he solidified his spot in the top 100.
2008 saw more of the same, as he went to the second round in the Australian Open and Roland Garros, but he dropped out of the top 100 in April 2008 and then out of the top 200 in March 2009 for the first time in almost three years.
2010 has been much better for Falla, and he climbed back to a career high of No. 58 in the ATP rankings this past April, based largely on a run to the third round at the Australian Open. He had already beaten Top 50 players in Jeremy Chardy, Victor Hanescu, Janko Tipsarevic, and Ivan Ljubicic this year, but he lost to Federer in straight sets twice in the space of two weeks, first at the French Open and then again on the grass of Halla.
On Monday though, it was all different. Falla looked like a world-beater and Federer—for the time in a long time—looked less than immortal on the opening day of a major tournament. You could go one step further and say he looked average.
Falla, though, deserves all the plaudits and accolades he receives. He outplayed one of the best ever to pick up a racket for almost three hours, and he certainly earned his moment in the sun.