Federer casts spell on Centre Court

The late-morning crowd on Centre Court appeared to be on a day out from Hogwarts School, so often were they on the edge of joyful unruliness. The cat-calls and encouragements were a bit more raucous than usual and, during one change-over, a champagne cork arced over the railings and plopped by the foot of a startled ball girl.

They were waiting for Tim Henman, their own Harry Potter, of course. But there is only one wizard, only one magician. And his name is Roger Federer. First on yesterday, before Henman, and the champion dismissed Thomas Johansson 6-3, 6-4, 6-3, a fellow Grand Slam winner and no mug, in a performance of casual brilliance.

If Federer had played in slippers while drawing on a long cigar he could not have appeared more relaxed, more in control and yet frighteningly lethal. Only one man appears to be able to prevent him retaining his title - and that is Federer himself. He seems in no mood to acquiesce.

"It's got something else, when you come back as the defending champion to a Grand Slam," he explained after his 20th successive win on grass. "And sometimes this can be difficult. But I have to say I prefer it. I'm feeling very good this year, definitely better than last year, because I know I [have] already won this tournament."

Federer's comfort on court was startling. The sorcerer, a rich amalgam of John McEnroe and Pete Sampras, belonged. His invention, especially with a forehand volley from the back of the court in the second set, his ingenuity, his supremacy was astonishing. And all aged just 22. Each shot from the young Swiss was an original belonging more to the Ministry of Magic than any tennis manual. He struck 44 winners.

The retiring Goran Ivanisevic took up the theme last week when he described Federer as "the biggest talent from all the players I ever play in my career". And that from someone who contested the court with Connors through to Sampras and beyond. "Some things he does better than Pete," Ivanisevic explained of Federer. "I mean, on the court he's like magician... when you look at him you think tennis is [a] very easy sport, but it's not."

Yesterday, his box of tricks remained largely untouched until the sixth game of the first set when he broke Johansson. The determined Swede, who missed the whole of last year through injury, saved three break points - earning a football-like chant from the crowd of "Nice one Tommy, nice one son".

But it was only delaying the inevitable as Federer picked up a half-volley to pass him at the net. The reactions were sharp, the hands soft and, flustered, Johansson struck a clumsy backhand on the next point. Ahead, Federer served out.

It was an economy of effort from a player who finished 2003 on a high, by winning the Masters Cup, started 2004 with his second Grand Slam, this time in Australia, taking the number one in the world ranking, and has never looked like coming down since.

At times yesterday he seemed unconcerned about even attempting to break Johansson. It wasn't arrogance, it was supreme belief from a player who has yet to drop a service game this Wimbledon. It was as if he was saying to himself: "let's get to the business end of the set and then finish it".

And so in the second, after Johansson had saved two break points in the first game, Federer struck again at 3-3. A wonderful deep forehand into Johansson's shoelaces set him up at 15-30 and he thumped a forehand to break.

Analysing Federer's armoury is amazing. Take that serve. It is hardly the quickest - "I would like to break 130 [mph] but I cannot," he said, "so I have to do it differently". And differently means accurately and with variety. Johansson had one chance. At 2-3 in the third he manufactured two break points with a wonderfully gritty blocked return. But that just provoked four unerring serves by Federer.

In some ways he is tennis's equivalent to Muttiah Muralitharan, the Sri Lankan spin bowler and the most destructive cricketer on the planet. Above all Murali has great control and like him Federer can spin the ball every which way. His powerful forehand doesn't just have top spin, it has side spin too. And probably goes in several other directions as well that defy the laws of physics.

In the post-match interview one questioner picked up on criticism by the former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash who, although praising Federer, complained about his backhand slice. "Hmm," came the not-so-chuffed reply. "If he gives me compliments, that's okay. If he doesn't say something that nice, that's okay too. I don't take it seriously."

Or listen to it at all. In fairness, and having dispensed with his coach Peter Lundgren, it may well be an area of vulnerability especially against someone who will get forward more than Johansson - but that's a bit like attacking Diego Maradona for being one-footed.

At 4-3 in the third, Federer held his serve to love. Johansson then saved one match point, with an ace, but panicked as a vicious forehand was whipped back.

Appropriately, Federer struck a wonderful forehand to end it. The next test for him is the giant Croat Ivo Karlovic. At 6ft 10in his serve will be something new for the champion.

But then, when you're playing like a God, it doesn't surely matter that the serves are coming from the heavens.

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