If doubts remain that Roger Federer is rusty and fatigued, victory over Cameron Norrie proved once again that Wimbledon’s deity will not be dethroned easily. But while the 39-year-old is safely through to the second week at Wimbledon for the 17th time in his career, there is no use pretending he wields the same unbreakable aura over Centre Court, and a cathartic fist pump revealed both the strength and relief required to tame an unlikely comeback from Britain’s last remaining flag-bearer in the men’s singles.
For two sets, Federer oozed all the regal grace that had so often propelled him into a world of his own, and to suggest a fightback was on the cards would require an enviable state of delirium. And yet, as victory moved into view, the 20-time grand slam champion’s killer instinct seemed to desert him, his impeccable timing faltering under a strained rhythm as Norrie summoned all his spirit to snatch the third set and ignite a subdued atmosphere on Centre Court.
An early bout of nerves conquered, Norrie’s resistance was substantial and unyielding, digging into a well of courage he’d never previously reached to defend a relentless barrage of break points. But as murmurs of hope transformed into excitable cheers, Federer’s superior class finally told at the end of the fourth set to close out a 6-4 6-4 5-7 6-4 victory that was far from as simple as it had first seemed.
“[I’m] super relieved,” he said afterwards. “It was a tough battle and it was so close. He deserved that third set, he played excellent today. For me, I felt I was able to keep a high level of play and he got that good break at the end of the third – but overall I can be very happy with how I played. It’s obviously very different [from my win in round one]. Lefties have different strengths and weaknesses. I’m playing at a high level now and things are going well for me.”
Centre Court had found itself in a strange conflict in the opening game, weighing patriotism against adoration. But as the nerves stiffened in Norrie’s arm and three double faults betrayed the scale of the task in front of him, it became clear where their support was most needed. But in the face of embarrassment, Norrie refused to crumble and rallied with remarkable courage to hold serve. It was a first glimpse of the bravery he’d later rely on, but it only flickered in the first set as the 25-year-old accustomed to the greatest stage of his career.
After a few service games were traded, the pressure of Federer’s presence took its toll, his precise groundstrokes leaving Norrie flailing on the baseline. It has always been a gift of Federer’s to seemingly never break sweat or seem flustered, but while he glided across the court effortlessly, every point was a gruelling examination of Norrie’s attrition. He could only survive the blows so long, losing 12 points in succession as Federer closed out the set.
The No 29 seed, who rode a wave of momentum into Wimbledon after reaching the final at Queen’s, did attempt to rally in the second, forcing two break points on Federer’s serve, but no sooner had the door been cracked ajar was it slammed shut. A signature whip of Federer’s backhand elicited a second break and whatever stubborn resilience Norrie summoned was swatted away with relative ease. Trailing by two sets all too quickly, fantasy had resigned itself to fate.
But while the occasion threatened to pass Norrie by, his defiant stand in the third ensured a mark was left that not only solidified his credentials but caused Federer genuine concern. Refusing to accept defeat, the Briton displayed heart and guts in helpings and, with the score at 6-5, he took Federer to love on serve and broke with conviction at the first opportunity.
In an instant, Centre Court crackled with belief as the most unlikely upset became less a figment of their imagination with each passing point. Unsettled by the setback, Federer’s level dropped and a series of uncharacteristic errors raised further doubt. After all, it is easy to forget that this was just his 12th tour-level match since the turn of the year. Perhaps, it should come as no surprise that he has struggled to remain consistently in top gear. But at the pivotal moment, even after an unfortunate slip tested the strength of his mended knee ligaments, Federer’s superiority returned to the fore, drumming Norrie into submission with a streak of exquisite shots. And as a drive-volley made way for somewhat relieved celebrations, despite the warnings that come with this first week, Wimbledon will dare to dream again.
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