As the fifth set wore on, there was something bothering Roger Federer. Maybe it was the unfamiliar surroundings of Court No 1 – he had played all his previous matches this year on Centre Court. Federer, who prides himself for his balance, slipped once during a crucial rally. He was seen complaining to the umpires about something. Maybe the planes that usually flew over Wimbledon now just sounded rhythm-breaking loud: Federer paused before a serve in one of the games, and ended up serving his first double fault of the match in the 23rd game of the fifth set, losing serve, taking another step closer to defeat. Or maybe it was just the tall South African across the net who refused to fold.
Federer, it seemed, had nothing more left in his bag of masterful tricks against Kevin Anderson.
“As the match went on, I couldn't surprise him anymore. That's a bad feeling to have,” Federer said later, reflecting on his stunning 6-2, 7-6(5), 5-7, 4-6, 11-13 defeat in the press room. “These are the moments where you try to hold your serve, create opportunities. Maybe he's got to miss a few more than make a few more. That's going to maybe make the difference. I couldn't come up with enough good stuff for him to miss more. I think that was the key at the end.”
The Swiss, looking for his 21st Grand Slam and ninth Wimbledon title had once again started the grasscourt Slam as the overwhelming favourite. He had done his billing no harm, winning the first four matches without dropping a set, or even a service game. It looked like another smooth Federer ride when he bagged the first set against Anderson 6-2 in 26 minutes. There was no hint of the turbulence or the imminent crash ahead.
But it was a day Anderson had started by believing.
“I just kept on telling myself I have to keep believing and I kept saying that today was going to be my day, because you really need that mindset taking the court against somebody like Roger," said Anderson, who had lost all his previous four matches against Federer, and eight straight sets.
He made the first statement of intent by cashing on two backhand errors by Federer and breaking the Swiss’ serve in the second game of the second set. The last time Federer lost serve at Wimbledon was the 2017 semi-final against Tomas Berdych. He won 85 successive games on his serve since. It seemed like a minor lapse for Federer, who won the break back and eventually settled for winning the set with a tie-break. The 34th he had won in a row.
It wasn’t till the end of the third set, however, that Anderson’s resolve came into play. The 6’8-tall South African was serving a lot better than he had in the first set and going toe-to-toe with Federer on the rallies. Despite starting the game at 4-5 brightly (40-15), Anderson found himself in a bit of trouble when a forehand error saw him go down a match point against Federer. But rather than slinking away, Anderson met the challenge head on, pounding a 132 mph serve at Federer’s backhand and eventually drawing an error from the Swiss.
Losing that match point probably affected Federer more than he let on. The 36-year-old dropped serve in the very next game and despite some flashes of genius from his racquet, was left rather subdued by Anderson’s power and consistency. Even at that height, the South African’s movement was impeccable and after the third, Anderson did not put a foot wrong.
The Swiss was left to play the waiting game, holding his end up and waiting for Anderson to drop his level. But through the 90-minute fifth set, Anderson, serving second, withstood the pressure remarkably well. Ever half-chance that Federer had was snuffed out with a monster serve or a powerful forehand.
Even though most of the 11,000 fans were hoping desperately for a strong home run from Federer, the Swiss was the first to crack. Serving at 11-11, Federer dropped his guard. He missed his routine serve and volley, hitting the forehand a shade too wide. A double fault was then compounded by another tired forehand into the net by Federer. Anderson put in a strong service game to dish out the biggest upset of this wacky Wimbledon. It had been a four-hour 14-minute battle of wills, and deservedly Anderson was the last man standing.
“I guess there was definitely a moment at some point. Is it missing match points? Is it getting broken at five-all after that? I'm not sure. I had my chances, so it's disappointing. No, I mean, no doubt about it. He was consistent. He was solid. He got what he needed when he had to,” Federer said. “Credit to him for hanging around really that long.”
It was for the second time in his career that the Swiss had lost at a Grand Slam after being two sets up. He had lost 6-3, 7-6(3), 4-6, 4-6, 4-6 to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarter-finals at Wimbledon in 2011 and then 7-6(7), 6-4, 3-6, 2-6, 5-7 to Novak Djokovic at the US Open the same year.
Even though no one saw the quarter-final defeat coming, the Federer of 2018 has not been as dominant as Federer of 2017. He had showed some vulnerability in losing the Indian Wells final to Juan Martin del Potro and the final in Halle, his playground, to youngster Borna Coric. But he is still a lot more relaxed and focused on the court than during his Grand Slam drought years. It wasn’t Federer’s famous mental wandering that had cost him the match against Anderson. The South African was just a better player and better competitor on the day: he hit 28 aces, 65 winners and 31 unforced errors compared to Federer’s 16 aces, 61 winners and 33 unforced errors.
On the day, Federer quite couldn’t summon the spell to make Anderson go away. But he is far from leaving the stage himself.
“Maybe the losses hurt more,” explained Federer. “It motivates me to do extremely well here because I don't want to sit here and explain my loss.”
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Updated Date: Jul 12, 2018 11:53:41 IST