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.

New Articles
tvDownton Abbey Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Arts and Entertainment
Life and Style
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all