It just may be that Roger Federer, like some sublimely gifted, time-travelling thoroughbred, will get the distance here for a seventh time. Or perhaps the hour is too late and the opposition too young and too stern.
Who really can say when they consider the fine edge of performance inhabited by Federer and the defending champion Rafael Nadal and their ambitious Big Four challengers Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray? There is, however, a certainty that rose up long before the end of Federer's exquisite opening first-round statement yesterday when he dismantled a game and not untalented 23-year-old from Kazakhstan, Mikhail Kukushkin, 7-6, 6-4, 6-2 in one hour and 42 minutes that became a little more enchanting with each new flash of the man already widely celebrated as the greatest, most artistic, player tennis has ever known.
It is that if Federer just happens to be missing on the last day of the action a week on Sunday no one who was in the Centre Court yesterday will feel any less blessed. Certainly do not, at any price, breathe to them the theory that they were watching a remnant, magnificently preserved no doubt, of the player who once made himself unbeatable on the Wimbledon grass who is now seeking his first win in six Grand Slam tournaments.
The glory of Federer, we have been reminded yet again, is that at 29 he remains ultimately committed to the imperative of winning. If we continue to marvel at the delicacy of his touch, the kind of surgical performance which might have provoked spontaneous applause in an operating theatre, he makes it plain that the beauty of his game is a mere by-product, however beautiful.
He may travel through time with a stunning consistenty but he doesn't serve it. He lives, still, for the moments of triumph and the possibility that in the next few days he may just work himself into a vein of form and confidence that might bring his 17th major title.
Yesterday he produced some of the most clinical serving we can expect to see in this tournament. He played ground shots of stunning grace – and bite. At least two drop shots defied geometry. The fans were rapturous and one mother was heard to say to a young son who had obviously been dubious about the day's adventure, "Now wasn't it a good idea coming to Wimbledon today?" The more aesthetically inclined might have answered that it was probably worth a hike up the Matterhorn.
Yet all the time we knew that Federer was operating on the old agenda that has always served him so well at the highest levels of competition. He was not admiring the precision of most of his work – he was wondering about its sharpness against the challenge he faces from the likes of Nadal and Djokovic and Murray.
"The first round for me is a matter of playing solid and coming through. Really, you always get nerves coming into the first round and when the conditions are windy you are always aware that something can go wrong. I usually think that it is in a second-round match where I can say more about my level of play. I think, though, I'm playing well. I'm serving well, moving well. But sometimes you have to struggle. In the first set I had trouble getting a read on his serve, even though he is not the biggest server. But he is a consistent server.
"At first the conditions were a bit difficult with the wind and that didn't make things so easy with him doing well.
"But then I never really struggled on my serve. I was able to actually cruise almost, you know, through lots of my service games. That relaxed me – maybe at times a little too much. But overall, I have to say it was a good performance. In a very tricky wind it is sometimes difficult to time the ball well from the baseline."
Whatever the hazards – and not the least of them was the willingness of the 60th-ranked Kukushkin to gamble on producing more of a stir than when he brought down the respected Mikhail Youzhny for his only ATP win in St Petersburg – Federer was plainly intent on confirming the impression that his march to the final of the French Open, and dismantling of Djokovic, really meant that he was again an authentic contender.
His ability to continue to produce a most superior touch has, of course, never been in question and the charge against the diva Diana Ross was that she had passed on maybe some considerable inspiration when she chose to leave the Centre Court at the moment of her friend Serena Williams' somewhat laboured victory. Her fellow diva Barbra Streisand once described another Wimbledon champion, Andre Agassi, as a Zen God. Yesterday there was much to say that Federer still retained more than a touch of divinity.
He was invited to describe the nature of its game – and how it evolved. He declared: "Down the years I have had to tie my game together, make it casual in one way but also solid, and to make it happen I had to work extremely hard on my fitness and my mental part of the game. All these things eventually came together and I think it possibly comes out best on grass. Today when I played on the surface I felt very natural. You can cut the points short if you want to. You can be very aggressive, you play two-shot tennis, which then creates some very different types of points. It's the kind of stuff I love doing.
"In the end, with the changes in the game, you just have to go on finding different ways of winning... sometimes you can break the will of an opponent with a 20-shot rally. Sometimes you can do it more quickly."
The fact is there were times yesterday when Roger Federer quite simply suggested he could do anything he wanted. Diana Ross should be ashamed of herself.Reuse content