Let's start at the very beginning,
A very good place to start.
When you read you begin with A-B-C,
When you sing you begin with...
Well in the music of tennis, until now, you’ve begun with F for Federer.
At Wimbledon this year, however, the vocabulary was indeed A-B-C.
Opening Monday began with an A who brought unexpected drama within minutes of Federer walking onto Centre Court. For Alejandro—the world No. 60, Falla—was two sets up on the champion in the blink of an eye.
The Roger Federer campaign was quickly the headline story in every news medium going.
But I rush ahead of myself.
This is a song of Federer’s Wimbledon, the A-B-C of his tournament leavened by the do-re-mi of his tennis music.
So let’s start at the beginning.
Federer did, of course, come into Wimbledon 2010 on a run of seven finals. His only loss was to Rafael Nadal in the near-iconic 2008 final. And he’d already ruffled a few feathers by starting the tournament as the No. 1 seed ahead of the new world No. 1, Nadal himself.
The stakes this time round were higher than ever, for Federer had not only lost his top ranking to Nadal at the French Open but had failed, for the first time in 23 consecutive Slams, to reach the semi-finals.
To stand a chance of regaining the No. 1 ranking this year, Federer needed to defend the Wimbledon title. Nadal, for his part, was intent on defending his 2008 title.
There was a different flavor to this year’s event, however. Federer had suffered a succession of defeats since his victory in Australia, and to players who had always suffered at his hands: Marcos Baghdatis, Tomas Berdych, Ernests Gulbis, Albert Montanes, Robin Soderling and, only the week before on grass, Lleyton Hewitt.
But Federer talks an upbeat game, and rightly so. His grass game is one of the finest of the Open era.
So the smiles as he practised on opening Monday were entirely understandable.
The ticket for Centre Court, won against the clock online just the day before, provided a seat way back beneath the cooling shade of the arena overhang.
The seat little mattered. Every one of them has a clear and comfortable view, and no seat is more than around 40 rows away.
More significant, this was the one day of the whole tournament when Federer was guaranteed. The reigning Wimbledon champion always opens proceedings on the finest court in the world.
But it also helps to know his routine: a light practice around two and a half hours before the match.
Last year, it was on Court 16, the closest one to the main clubhouse, so it was worth heading to the same place. Sure enough, a camera crew, trainer, and knock-up partner were the prelude to the quiet arrival of the man himself.
Practice provides a perfect counterpoint to match-play. A gentle knock is gradually cranked up to harder ball striking, forays to the net for volley and overhead drills, and then a retreat for serving and more ground work.
It is entirely routine yet endlessly fascinating. A slight adjustment here, a sudden upping of tempo there, and the chance to sit almost within touching distance.
In fairness, the route to the honey-pot is made a little easier by following the worker bees.
As the grounds open, on any day when Federer is scheduled to play, there is a veritable army of fans happy to wear their allegiance on the sleeve and everywhere else.
This happy band of women—and a good many men, too—foregather to share the inside information.
Unabashed, happy, and generous to any fellow-fan, they are filmed by TV stations, interviewed by the press, and readily guide the more reticent observer to the right rectangle of green.
The reigning champion strode onto Centre Court at precisely 1 p.m. Rolex made sure the time was right: It does, after all, sponsor all of Wimbledon’s timepieces as well as the champion himself.
The sun shone, he was immaculate in head-to-toe, unadorned white, and opened his first game with a casual 128 mph serve. So far, so good.
What he, and few others on Centre Court, expected was for Alejandro Falla to take the match by the throat and storm to a two sets lead. Federer looked bemused, as though he had, for once, underestimated his challenger.
The lion awoke in the third set, though not before he had faced break points. But just as order seemed restored, Federer was again broken at the beginning of the fourth, and that allowed Falla to serve for the match at 5-4.
The Houdini in Federer chose that very game to break back, and he went on to win the tie-break convincingly, and the final set even more easily, 6-0.
But it was a close shave, and Federer knew it. There was even talk of a bit of luck, and that is rare from the great man.
Perhaps he’d been busy.
Maybe he was thinking of reverting to the look of his first victory all those years ago: you know, that ponytail.
It could be he was waiting until the last moment to get the cut right for a very special meeting: on Thursday with Her Majesty. He was, it was afterward confirmed, seated next to her at lunch and had to look his best.
Whatever the reason, the curls on those first days at the All England Club were longer than Wimbledon had enjoyed for a good many years
During his match, his hair seemed to be causing more trouble than usual, but during practice, he was at pains to demonstrate just how long the curls were.
Enjoy them while you can: they’ve since been chopped off!
The fluidity and lightness of Federer in motion underpins his whole game, and infuses his tennis with elegance.
Experts and fans alike struggle to convey how he moves. They talk of his ability to float across the court. Most will compare him with a dancer. Many will focus on the footwork and the balance, others on the proportions of the build and the lean muscularity.
It is, of course, a combination of all these things, and their synergy produces an effortless grace unparalleled in the modern game.
His feet and leg action are worth watching in isolation from the shot-making, even if only for a few points, just to absorb the nimble athleticism and lightning change of direction.
The earth paused on its axis again as Federer took to the court for his second-round match against an even less heralded player, a qualifier ranked 152 in the world: Serbian Ilija Bozoljac.
What’s more, the powers-that-be scheduled the match on Court One, the first time since 2007 that the champion had played anywhere other than Centre Court.
As if to affirm that something strange was indeed afoot in World Federer, he duly lost yet another set against another inspired opponent. He just seems to have that knack of bringing out the best in people.
It took a fourth set tie-breaker for him to seal the match, 6-3, 6-7, 6-4, 7-6, though the Serb looked as happy with his loss as Federer did with the win. It was smiles all round.
As Federer said afterwards of their words at the net: “I asked him what kind of drink he wanted later in the bar."
Federer embraces the Wimbledon traditions with enthusiasm, just as he suffuses himself in the history of the game, and in the stats of others and himself. Don’t believe a word of the occasional feigned ignorance when he feels like having a dig in press conferences.
Federer and his team have played with those ideas of tradition in each successive year’s “look,” progressing from youthful beads and ponytail, through Fred Perry cable-knit to last year’s modern take on the safari jacket.
Love it or loath it, his Wimbledon “look” has always shown an innate confidence in his own skin.
This year? Well, this year there were unspoken—though surely unconscious—signals of a toned-down champion. Where gold had edged last year’s collar and trimmed last year’s shorts, there was white and nothing else.
Only the Nike swoosh was gold—well, apart from the tiny gold “6” on the back of just one shoe.
The clothing fitted a little more loosely, in contrast with Nadal’s skin-tight, cropped-sleeve shirt and carefully shaped shorts.
With the advantage of hindsight, it would be easy to read volumes into this: at the time, it looked simply like a Federer determined to avoid the sartorial booby-trap of last year’s final.
As the green on Centre Court faded into a pale earthy brown, the death-defying antics of Federer’s first two rounds faded, too.
His third round draw against Arnaud Clement was a match made in heaven for Federer, offering up a varied, creative style of play from which he feeds like a humming bird drawing nectar.
He looked immediately at home, flying over the turf with his characteristic lightness, firing forehands, attacking the net, and out-thinking an excellent Clement.
Federer produced an almost identical performance when he went back to A for the Austrian, Jurgen Melzer.
Federer lost just eight games in his straight sets win, the same as he had against Clement. He attacked the net—again frequently and successfully—and his serve was as solid as ever.
But look closely at both matches and there were reasons for concern: plenty of break point chances but only half of them converted, and 11 unforced errors in an hour and a half in each match.
The Federer pattern, however, is to get stronger as he plays through a Slam. And this is what he seemed to be doing.
The signature sweep of that right arm from behind his left ear to behind his right shoulder is one of tennis’ great pleasures. Its close cousin, the sliced version that ends alongside his right hip, is another.
The Federer single-hander, once regarded as a weakness, has been honed into both defensive and offensive weapon. It is one of the most extreme actions in tennis, both arms folding back like the wings of a swooping bird.
It may lack the penetration of the double-hander, but it delivers disguise, touch and a flexibility normally associated with squash. A two-handed player would struggle to make a backhand winner with his back to the net.
And at the net, it allows a touch and precision one level above the two-handed equivalent.
Opponents play to Federer’s “weaker” side as a constant strategy. Over time, that has strengthened the response. Only think of the outright winners he scored over Andy Murray in the Australian final.
Yet there is an Achilles heel there, too. Nadal has long recognised the difficulty of picking off a winner from the outward curving, upward trajectory of a top-spin drive that arrives above the shoulder.
Others have followed suit, and Tomas Berdych was merciless in the depth, speed, and penetration of his shots to that backhand wing. They were past Federer before he could blink.
It turned out to be a match-winning pattern.
There was a time—and not so long ago—when Federer seemed untouched by stress, injury and fatigue. His resolve seemed impervious to challenge, to self-doubt, or to pain. His position as king of the castle, fending off all assaults, seemed impenetrable.
But the time had to come—and the quarterfinals at Wimbledon seemed to be the moment that the world’s media affirmed it—when he could hold off the barrage no longer.
The scene of the regicide—for that is how it felt—was Centre Court where he fell 6‑4, 3‑6, 6‑1, 6‑4 to the ever-improving Berdych. Federer failed to make the final at Wimbledon for the first time since 2003.
Though Federer led their head-to-head by eight wins to two, the increasingly hard court combined with the power of Berdych was a dangerous combination. What’s more, Berdych had won their last meeting at the Miami Masters.
On paper, the Federer stats didn’t look too different from his wins. A decent first serve percentage and speed; a sprinkling of aces; a good many net attacks. But once again, those break point chances came and went. He converted just one out of eight.
Opportunities against this new breed of big, mobile men with big shots—of which Berdych and Soderling are prime examples—are few and far between.
Once upon a time, that would not have mattered to Federer because he would take the first one.
The beaten champion departed immediately for some holiday, but the loss hit him hard. Not only was it Federer’s second quarterfinal Slam exit in a row, but he would also drop to third in the world for the first time since November 2003.
He summed it up with his usual economy: “The injuries will calm down after three, four, five days off. Losing here at Wimbledon will no doubt hurt more.”
It was, then, a strange second Friday to be wandering the courts at Wimbledon, watching four other men go through their practice sessions and fight it out for the 2010 title.
It was thrilling, of course, as only a Grand Slam semi-final day can be.
It was privileged, too, to absorb the physical presence of Nadal at close quarters and in match play—more of that to come.
There was a certain pride—and hope—in seeing the lone British man relaxed and optimistic, though eventually beaten by a better man.
So I hope to be there again next year. I also hope that Federer will be there, too.
"Grass Roots One: Wimbledon 2010 Faces and Places" is at http://bleacherreport.com/articles/415830-grass-roots-1-faces-and-places-at-wimbledon-2010
The concluding celebration, "Grass Roots Three: Wimbledon 2010 Belonged to Rafa and Serena," follows soon.