Federer battles back from the brink to avoid first-round humiliation

Those who arrived in south-west London yesterday feeling like guests at the wrong wedding were very quickly disabused of the notion that the main sporting excitement is unfolding elsewhere, for at precisely 3.41pm on Wimbledon's opening day the defending champion and top seed Roger Federer found himself confronting the supreme indignity of serving – against Alejandro Falla, a Colombian ranked 65th in the world – to stay in a championship that had barely begun. The World Cup might have served up some surprises – Italy failing to beat New Zealand, a German missing a penalty, England fans thinking back fondly to the Sven-Goran Eriksson era – but nothing like the shock waves that would have been generated had Federer, in pursuit of a record-equalling seventh men's singles title, lost in his opening match.

The records will show, of course, that he didn't. After a remarkable contest on Centre Court lasting three hours and 18 minutes, the champion prevailed 5-7, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6, 6-0. But it was an epic slog, and the statistics show just how unexpected was the spectacle of Federer coming so close to first-round defeat. He hasn't lost in the first round here since 2002, when he was defeated by Mario Ancic. Four times in his Grand Slam career, five times overall, he has won five-setters after trailing two sets to love. But never at Wimbledon. Moreover, he has already played 26-year-old Falla on grass this month, at Halle less than a fortnight ago, and he strolled it, 6-1, 6-2. The two also met at this year's French Open, and there too Federer won in straight sets.

There seemed no reason during the knock-up yesterday to think that victory for Federer over the left-handed Falla would not, again, be a stroll. After all, it is hard to think of any sporting performer who habitually looks more elegantly comfortable in any arena than the Swiss on Centre Court, especially this early in the championship. Michael Holding gliding in to bowl at Sabina Park, perhaps. But there were moments here when Federer just could not find his line and length. Indeed, just to refer one last time to that other sporting event currently taking place, if Wayne Rooney could find the net in South Africa even a fraction as often as the Federer forehand did yesterday, they'd already be making room for him on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. Federer's forehand is normally one of the great sights in tennis, almost matched by that flamboyant, whipped backhand, yet both were strangely out of sorts. "My whole game was sort of in disarray," he admitted afterwards.

It would be unfair to focus too much on the champion's uncharacteristic defects, however, because the truth is that Falla played the match of his life, and later acknowledged as much. "I think today is a special day for me in tennis," he said. It could easily have been even more special. Every time the crowd sensed that big-occasion nerves were finally getting to the Colombian, they seemed to get to his illustrious opponent instead. Serving at 5-4, Falla had three points to win the second set, all saved by Federer. A comeback seemed imminent. But at the fourth attempt, with a marvellous, kicking second serve that completely foxed the man with 16 Grand Slams to his name, Falla moved two sets ahead.

At 4-4 in the third set, with Falla 0-40 against the Federer serve, there was a palpable feeling in the near-capacity crowd that they were about to witness one of the great Wimbledon upsets. But Federer saved all three break points, and a fourth, finally bagging game point by turning redoubtable defence into scintillating attack. In the fourth set, with Falla serving for a 5-3 lead, Federer again seemed about to turn the tables, greeting a break point with that discreet little fist pump that looks as if he is knocking gently on an imaginary door. But again Falla defied the crowd's expectations, and possibly his own as well, holding serve to lead 5-3. With Federer having held to save the match, Falla then served to win it, but for the first time seemed prey to nerves, perhaps in trembling recognition of what, possibly, he was about to achieve. By the time Federer won the tie-break 7-1, the writing was on the wall in fluorescent yellow, and the final set was the formality that everyone had expected the entire match to be.

There were tales of the unexpected elsewhere, too. Marin Cilic, seeded 11, was beaten in straight sets by the German Florian Mayer, and the seventh seed, Russia's Nikolay Davydenko, had a memorable tussle with the South African Kevin Anderson, taking four hours and 13 minutes to win in five sets. It was the longest five-setter of the day, but by no means the most dramatic.