Few things in tennis can feel quite so incongruous as a framed shot off Roger Federer’s racquet. Even in these twilight years, when his powers are waning and his right knee wails, the purity of his ball-striking was always supposed to be sacrosanct. It is tennis’s grace distilled: one fluid swish of the right arm, the soft punch of rubber against string, followed by the ball’s perfect spring forwards, like a prized racehorse released from its starting post. Federer’s timing has a way of reducing even sweat and toil to a regal art form.
Yet, midway through the first set of his second-round match against Richard Gasquet, the ball rattled the frame of his racquet with a clank that reverberated around Centre Court and elicited a collective gasp from the crowd. Such betrayals of timing might have been a common occurrence since his comeback, but not for an audience who still remember Federer in his divine and undimmed light. Throughout the first set, his rhythm laboured a fraction and he made 13 unforced errors. But while Federer is far from his old heights, the freedom he found in the second and third sets will breathe new life into adoring illusions. Even at 39 years old, the soul of so many triumphs lives on.
This routine straight-sets victory might not have been a perfect performance, but it was in many respects exactly what was required. The drama and tragedy of Federer’s first-round match against Adrian Mannarino, that could have quite possibly led to the 20-time grand slam champion’s exit until the Italian’s injury, was an exacting and at times unforgiving test. It is easy to forget that Federer has now still only played 11 tour-level matches this year and there is still plenty of ring rust to be shaken off. To that effect, Gasquet was the perfect sparring partner, having lost 18 of their 20 prior meetings, and the pair traded elegant single-handed backhands like whistling jabs. The uncharacteristic errors were exorcised, the stiff serves shaken out. When Federer needed to raise his level, he caught Gasquet cold, clinching the first-set tiebreak.
Soon afterwards, to the roaring approval of the crowd, the unquestionable quality that still lies beneath began to shine through. Federer moved across the court freely, used a serve-and-volley to fine effect, and hit exquisite groundstrokes off both sides, his power and precision far superior than anything Gasquet could muster. The second set was a near-exhibition, breaking the Frenchman’s serve twice and hitting 17 winners, each struck with the wonder of old, gliding across the court and scratching paint off the tramlines. For every drive volley where he leapt into the air at full-stretch there was a wicked slice or drop shot that he picked up off the grass. By the time he wrapped up victory, the errors had all but evaporated but the highlights remained a constant.
“It’s not the most important to feel your absolute best in the first and second round but what you really don’t want to do is go out because then you really have to look at everything and question yourself,” he said after wrapping up a 7-6 6-1 6-4 victory. “I’m in the third round, I’m really happy with my level right now. Today was special and I’m very happy with that.
“It’s been a difficult year and a half in many ways for me with the knee surgery and rehab and everything – the initial goal was to come back for Wimbledon last year and that was never going to happen.”
The level of competition will increase in the third round, where Federer will face Cameron Norrie. The pair’s last meeting was almost a whitewash, completed inside an hour, but the Briton now represents a far more imposing challenge and is riding a fantastic wave of momentum on grass. It is another style that will suit Federer perfectly, though, all long rallies with looping top spin, and will help to further smooth any chinks in his once impregnable armour on grass. It may be too late to recapture the physicality of his youth, but if his timing rings true like old, the next ten days could offer plenty of dreams yet.
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