They are old adversaries, if not necessarily in years, so Roger Federer admitted that he expected a hard time in his third round Centre Court match against Nicolas Kiefer. The German certainly obliged the defending champion, pilfering a set from the Swiss before falling 6-2 6-7 6-1 7-5.
That tie-break loss was the first set Federer has conceded in an opening week in which he has proceeded with the assurance of a battleship on a millpond, moving towards that modern-era rarity at Wimbledon, a hat-trick of titles. Fred Perry did it in 1934-36, Bjorn Borg won five in a row, and Pete Sampras twice did the hat-trick, so Federer will be in august company if he goes the distance in the second week.
The prospect appeals, of course. "This is definitely a special year, trying to make it three in a row. But I need to stay focused on what I have to do. I mean, the opponents are not getting easier from here. But first I have to make sure I get the chance for three. For this, I have to make the final first."
Making the final is something which comes easy to the Swiss Alp on grass. Yesterday's victory was his 32nd in succession on the surface, encompassing two Wimbledons and three victories in the German tournament held in Halle. The feeling of invincibility, although modestly presented, sits well with the 23-year-old.
The 27-year-old Kiefer, who five years ago was inside the world's top five, has struggled in recent seasons with wrist and heel injuries but he remains a dangerous opponent. He won three of their first four matches, but in the last two years the balance has swung firmly to Federer with three straight wins.
Neither man had been helped by having this second-round match postponed by rain from Friday afternoon until a noon start under heavy cloud and far chillier conditions than Wimbledon had hitherto been offering in its first, glorious week. With only a single day's rest now available until the fourth round is played out tomorrow. Federer was keen to get out there and get off again with the least possible delay or inconvenience.
It seemed his wish would be granted when he sailed through the opening set in less than half an hour. Two captures of the German serve were more than enough to set him comfortably in the driver's seat. But the bearded Kiefer, one of the back-to-front cap brigade, is a dogged opponent.
So the Wimbledon champion was not surprised to be required to labour through a long second set in which neither man managed a break point until the onset of the tie-break. Here Federer jumped into a three points to love lead and was 5-2 ahead until Kiefer embarked on a thrilling, and loudly applauded, surge of five straight points which ended with Federer projecting a tame backhand into the netting. If Federer is ever nettled, it never shows. But the severity of the champion's reaction was indication enough. Kiefer was bombarded, fell 3-0 behind and found himself a set in arrears once more. It had been a quick set, too, just 29 minutes of Federer ferocity in which the Swiss was cranking up the serves to 136 miles an hour.
Cheekily, Kiefer snatched the Federer serve to go 2-0 ahead in the fourth set, only for Federer to claw back the break at once. Still the man from Sievershausen was not finished, breaking Federer for a 5-3 lead. Visions of a fifth set and an even heavier delay to the anxiously-awaited Centre Court enthronement of Andy Murray were washed away as Federer changed gear. Now we were seeing champion tennis from the champion.
Three straight games left him serving for the win and the way he moved to match point with perhaps the most glorious shot even he has ever played, a full stretch, running cross-court backhand which seared past Kiefer's outstretched racket. Even Federer was moved to call it "a beautiful shot." So pleased was he that he indulged in celebration at putting this potentially hazardous match behind him by hurling wristbands into the crowd. Though not a classic, it had been a highly entertaining match and a valiant effort by Kiefer. As John McEnroe observed on television: "It will give Federer something to think about during the weekend" as he prepares for his fourth round contest with Spaniard, Juan Carlos Ferrero.
Afterwards, Federer paid tribute to Kiefer. "We know each other's game pretty well, and I think at times you could see that today. I have the feeling I should have won in three but in the end I'm happy to have won in four.
"In the end, if I win in three or four sets, or in one or five hours, it doesn't matter, as long as I keep on winning. I have to keep that in mind, too. But this was definitely a test today, absolutely. I had to survive some tough moments. Tie-breakers are always tough, and I never should have lost that one, so in the third set I really had to turn it around. I started to play better just in time.
"After having to wait all day yesterday, I'm happy to have got this match over and of course I'm happy to be through to the second week. Now that I'm in the second week there are just four matches left. And it gets harder now."
As for who will constitute the biggest threat, Federer pointed out quietly that the rankings showed clearly enough who those people are. He promised to keep a special eye on last year's runner-up, Andy Roddick.
"When we get to the quarter-final stage, that's when I'm really going to start watching him." Roddick, too, is comfortably through to the fourth round after a straight-sets win over the Russian, Igor Andreev 6-2 6-2 7-6 in just under two hours. The second seed revealed that he also is watching Federer's progress and is happy with his form.
"I'm still alive. That's the goal. That's as well as I've hit the ball so far this tournament," said the 22-year-old American. "Mission accomplished for the first week. Now it's time to get down to business. It's always a big relief to get through the first few rounds. A lot of it is about survival."
As for Federer, nothing less than a third success would really satisfy him this time, he said. "For me only winning Wimbledon would be satisfying this year with the misses I've had at the French and Australian Opens.
"I could walk away from here easier if I played all right or my opponent played out of his head. But I'd still be very disappointed." He would not be alone.