Federer Lives To Fight Another Day
Alejandro Falla almost made history yesterday.
He had been described as ‘cannon fodder’ by the Wimbledon website on the eve of his first-round match against six-time defending champion Roger Federer. He was anything but. Falla started out the centre-court match by hitting solid and deep, taking advantage of his left-handedness. Federer was holding serve easily, but unexpectedly was unable to touch the serve of the man he had beaten comfortably just a fortnight ago at Halle. Falla had lost to Federer at Roland Garros earlier as well, and he must have taken more out of those losses than anyone expected. Federer was shaky, just as he has been since winning his 16th Grand Slam title in January, and as he was broken in the first set there were murmurs among the crowd. Falla served out the set and Federer was not playing like a Wimbledon champion. Still, the general consensus was that he would kick into gear soon, and Falla would cherish his one and only set against the Swiss master. Nobody thought an upset was on the cards.
Yet the first set loss didn’t seem to be the wake-up call Federer needed. Throughout the second, Falla continued to take Federer’s uncharacteristically short balls on the rise and followed them up with big serves. Federer’s brows begun to furrow as more of Falla’s balls whizzed past him, and he chipped his own returns lamely into the net. His hair looked out-of-place and sweat was beginning to gleam. The Swiss had been shaken but his game still refused to wake up. Falla took the second set and news began to spread.
Wimbledon crowds anxiously checked the live scoring boards as they lined up for other matches. Fans squirmed at home and commentators began to speak of the possibility that this would be one of the biggest upsets in tennis history. The tension reached fever-pitch as Federer found himself in a 0-40 hole. For sure, it was all over. Then Federer’s feet woke up, his serve clicked, and he saved four break points for the vital hold. One of these rallies resulted in a scrambling Federer, finally with the urgency he usually possesses, making brilliant volleys and running down a short ball. The fist pump that followed it was enough to convince commentator John McEnroe that this would be the turning point in the match. Fans weren’t so sure and the crowd stayed shocked and silent. Yet there was truth in McEnroe’s bold prediction. Falla stood at 4-5 and serving to stay in the set. Federer sensed the inevitable nerves and finally made his move, taking the critical third set and restoring some order.
He was supposed to run away with it, but Falla wasn’t done with silencing the crowd and wrecking fans’ nerves. Instead, the predominantly Federer crowd, who were chanting his name at the end of the third set, were once again on the edge of their seats as Federer fell behind an early break. The relief had only been temporary. Fans and commentators gasped as Falla prepared himself to serve for the match. But Federer was feeling the adrenaline now and sensed Falla’s nerves. He played his best return game of the match to dash away Falla’s biggest chance. Federer had finally begun to fight. Falla still refused to follow the script and had the opportunity to break Federer’s serve in the next game. Yet the Federer serve was working now and Falla found himself in a fourth set tiebreak. Finally thoughts of his missed chances and the occasion seemed to overwhelm him. The wheel had come full circle; Federer was playing like Federer and Falla was nervous. Federer took advantage of Falla’s errors and finally resisted making any of his own to run away with the tiebreak 7-1. It was effectively game, set, and match. As they started the fifth, it was all Federer.
The fifth brough much needed focus and form to Federer as he hit balls deep and played aggressive tennis against the resigned Columbian. As he finished off the fifth set 6-0, Federer walked off court visibly relieved, disheveled and shaken. However, as is expected with Federer, normality soon resumed. His press conference was one of calm and good humour, full of praise for his opponent. All was well again in the Federer camp. Order at Wimbledon had been restored.
Alejandro Falla almost made history yesterday. Instead, Roger Federer lives to fight another day.