Federer stages exhibition of ruthless intent

He may not yet have hit peak form, but the Swiss former champion sent out a warning as he eased through, writes James Lawton

When the curtain came up at the Centre Court it was already known that the leading man was unfortunately indisposed. So we were prepared to make the best of it. We had to put up with his understudy, Roger Federer. Strangely enough, none of the audience threw their programmes at the stage.

Injury to reigning champion Rafael Nadal means that we will never know what might have happened in the greatest re-match in this tournament's history but then long before the end of Federer's three-set, 1hr, 44-minute dispatching of Taiwan's splendidly obdurate Yen-Hsun Lu, the sense of loss had diminished to roughly the size of a pinhead.

Federer, who was so distressed at losing Wimbledon to Nadal he worked slavishly to gain Paris last month, at times did provide some evidence that this was his first competitive match on grass this year. How he did this could hardly have been more graphic. He just couldn't make every shot an act of nonchalant genius.

However, the number that he did place in that category was stunning by every standard but his own. He won the first game, on his own service, in precisely a minute. The 25-year-old Lu, who is ranked 64th in the world and is Asia's second best player, had a nightmare recall of the passionate argument he had with his businessman father back in Taiwan at the start of his career. His father said he should get a job in a bank. Lu said that he could go all the way in tennis and earn a fortune. Substantially true, of course, but then suddenly going all the way seemed rather impractical, if not soul-destroying.

Against Federer in this mood of authority going all the way takes on an entirely different dimension. Indeed, it requires – as Nadal might have admitted while convalescing in Spain – a certain period spent outside your own skin.

After the match, an American reporter who also appeared to be spending some time in that location asked Federer if he had ever read a piece which likened watching him play to a religious experience. Yes, Federer confirmed he had. It was written by someone called David Foster Wallace. "I remember doing the interview here on the grounds up in the grass. I had a funny feeling walking out of the interview. I wasn't sure what was going to come out of it because I didn't exactly know what direction he was going to go to. You know the piece is fantastic, completely different. You know it's completely different to what I've read in the past about me, anyway."

Religious experience? Not uniformly, yesterday. Certainly there were moments when you suspected the angels might have intervened, notably a couple of drop shots that were quite exquisite, a backhand from wide outside the court that left Lu rooted in disbelief, and another that was almost in the realm of the backhand down the line that preserved Federer's life in the fourth-set tie breaker in the final against Nadal.

His opening certainly wasn't some masterpiece of contemplative spirituality. It was as raw as a street mugging, a serve that Lu could only poke his racquet at, a tigerish backhand at the net and a couple of forehands that came like the rounds of a machine gun.

Remarkably, though Lu emerged groggily but still on his feet from the onslaught – and the derisive cry from the crowd, "come on Lu, you can do it." He could more easily have orbited Venus.

But as Federer said later, Lu could play seriously well. His all-round game was sound and he was in good heart following negative results in a series of blood tests after fears that he had contracted a virus, possibly swine flu. Stunningly, Lu broke Federer in the third game and stretched the first set to 49 minutes. It was impressive defiance based on solid serving and some sure-footed scampering and later Federer was generous in his assessment.

"I thought he played excellent, he's a wonderful player. He's got a nice forehand, a nice backhand, a very sound game all round. Seems he can play really well on the quicker courts. I knew the danger today. He's beaten good players in the past. It was a tough first set and he stayed tough through the match."

Where Federer might have hinted at a touch of religiosity was in his reverence to his fifth arrival at the Centre Court to open the tournament – four times as champion and once the ultimate tennis understudy.

"It is very special walking out," he said. "It's a very privileged spot you know, Monday 1pm. So of course I felt honoured. I know that Rafa deserves it obviously more than I do this year. But somebody had to do it, so I'm very happy they chose me. Yeah, it gets your heart beating, that's for sure. Just that first moment walking out, you know visualising, what's going to come when you walk down the corridor. Warming up for the first time here at Wimbledon, it's just sometimes not an easy thing to do. But it's what you dream about. If you're a great champion or not, you just want to enjoy the moment. You want to get your head down and get off to a good start. You forget about what's happened in the past. "

There were times yesterday, certainly, when Federer seemed to forget that he was an understudy.

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