The game is the same. The court is exactly the same size as every court you’ve been playing on since you learned to walk. The lines are white, the balls the same colour and weight as you’ve always known, the net the same height. The racquet you’re using feels familiar in your hands. The scoring system goes 15-30-40, just like you remember. The game is the same. And yet here, on this day, virtually nothing else is.
When Lloyd Harris strode onto court at a quarter to three on Tuesday afternoon, everything around him screamed newness. For one thing, there’s the place itself: the rows upon rows of leaf-green seats, receding into the shadows until you can no longer make them out. Then the noise: the gush of appreciation that a crowd produces when it recognises one of its own. As he emerged from the Centre Court locker room, Harris allowed himself a glance around, gauging the size and the shape of an arena he had never before glimpsed from this vantage point.
“I just got goosebumps,” he said. “I took a couple of seconds to soak in the atmosphere, realising where I am right now. And what’s about to happen.”
The first tell-tale sign that this would be no ordinary match came on Friday, when Harris’s phone immediately started pinging out of control. That was the moment when the 22-year-old world No87 from South Africa was drawn against Roger Federer in the first round of the Wimbledon men’s singles. He had never played on Centre Court before. He had never played at Wimbledon before. He had never even played a top-10 player before. Now, by dint of the Wimbledon computer, all three had tumbled into his life at once. The last few days, he remembered, had been “chaos”.
At some point, Harris’s mind was drawn back: back into his childhood, back to a brilliantly sunny Saturday back in 2007. He was 10 years old, on holiday in London with his parents, visiting London for the first time. They went to Wimbledon and snuck onto Centre Court, where Federer was playing Marat Safin in the third round. The kid from Cape Town watched transfixed, captivated by a level of tennis he had never seen before in the flesh. A dream was birthed that day that now, 12 years and two days on, was reaching glorious maturity.
And so, what goes through the mind of a man at a time like this? Perhaps it was something entirely prosaic: stay in the moment, stick to your plan. After all the modern athlete, with his mantras and mind coaches and infinite coping techniques, seems better equipped than most at this. But his conscious brain, and the weight of messages and calls that had been flooding his inbox over the previous few days, will have told him differently. That this was one of the seminal moments in his career. Perhaps even one of the seminal moments in his life. “Damn,” Harris thought to himself. “This is a good opportunity to show the world what I can do.”
Harris sized up his circumstances. No, he didn’t have any of Federer’s 20 Grand Slam titles or 107 matches of Wimbledon experience. He didn’t even have a single Tour-level win on grass to his name. But there are upsides to playing your idols too. “The good thing is,” Harris thought to himself, “I know everything about him. I’ve seen him 1,000 times in my life. And he’s never seen me play. That’s a good start, I guess.”
Driven by the element of surprise, a surge of adrenalin and the uncharacteristically slow court, Harris roared into the match. He claimed his first service game with two unreturnable serves. At 3-2, he leaned into the Federer serve, charged to the net, and forced an error on the backhand side. A break. It was the first time Federer had lost his serve in a Wimbledon first-round match for seven years.
The Centre Court crowd began to stir a little uneasily. It’s a total myth, by the way, that Wimbledon crowds instinctively root for the underdog. What they actually do is root for their favourites, and even as the 22-1 outsider consolidated his lead to take the first set 6-3, they swung behind their beloved eight-time champion. After all, Federer at Wimbledon is a bit like The Mousetrap, or Celine Dion at Vegas: a long-running residency that against all intuition seems to accumulate rather than shed reverence with every retelling. To the moneyed stalwarts in the debenture seats, Harris was but meat in the room, a clown in the circus.
That, alas, was as good as it got for Harris. Federer broke early in the second set, and as he accustomed himself to the pace of the court, standing aggressively on the baseline and taking balls on the half-volley, Harris remembered that “it steamrolled a little bit out of control”. Federer claimed the second set 6-1, and then the third 6-2, running the young South African all around the court. By the end of the third set, Harris required the trainer to come on to attend to a sore calf.
This was what they had all come to see. Not a giant-killing, just a plain killing. Centre Court purred and cooed as Federer sealed a service game with an immaculate drop shot from the baseline. At one point, as Federer smeared a clean backhand winner crosscourt, Harris simply crumpled onto his thighs, the effort and the futility temporarily breaking him. “Once he started hitting his spots,” he remembered, “he made it unplayable. When he’s playing his best tennis, it’s definitely the highest level I’ve ever felt.”
Federer won in four sets. He’ll be back on Thursday. No such guarantee exists for Harris. Winning a set off Federer on Centre Court might be a nice memory for the grandkids, but for now, it’s still the same L against his name. “I still lost first round,” he said. “I want to come back, become stronger. Maybe one day I want to win this tournament.”
In a way, the dilemma for Harris is one that has faced virtually every other player of his generation, and plenty of others besides. How do you kill your heroes? When you’ve idolised a player since childhood, how do you chop them down to beatable size? “I don’t know,” he said. “We just need to keep working hard at it, and hopefully we can take these guys away from the top.”
And so, at the end of four sets of tennis he will never forget, Harris allowed himself to bask in a little of the reflected Centre Court applause. He stood alongside Federer near the player exit and signed autographs for spectators who most likely had never heard of him when they walked through the gates that morning. He took one last look around and tried to feel like he had belonged. Then he disappeared back through those famous green doors, and you get the feeling that for Harris, the game will never be the same again.
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