Roger Federer is the perfect player.
You know the drill. “And God created Roger Federer,” goes the slogan. “Shhh! Genius at work,” the placards proclaim. But, in a way, the master is a victim of his success. He’s so good that when things tilt off-script, even slightly, shock waves rock tennis.
So many loyal Federerians were upset when the greatest-of-all-time was, for the first time since 2015, assigned to play his quarterfinal on Court One. The great king had been banished from his Centre Court palace. The game’s royal ruler, the No. 1 seed and defending champion, would have to venture out, so to speak, to the provinces, to prove his worth.
Then again, insiders noted that Wimbledon certainly had figured his match-up with No. 8 seed Kevin Anderson, who had never gotten beyond the fourth round here, would be just another day at the office for the zoning 36-year old, who hadn’t lost a set or been broken at Wimbledon yet.
Pat Cash asserted that Federer was playing his best tennis ever and that Wimbledon had essentially been an exhibition for him. Goodness, he was winning 92 percent of his first serve points. At one point he won 35 consecutive points on his serve. Plus, in four previous meetings with Anderson, he’d never lost a set. Seemingly, this mismatch would hardly be compelling – put it on Court One.
Not surprisingly, Roger sprinted from the starting line, winning eight of the first nine points and collecting the first set 6-2, in 26 clinical minutes. Roll, Roger roll.
But Anderson, a consummate professional who has worked hard with therapists, didn’t give in. Maybe he was in denial; he repeatedly told himself, “This is my day” – never mind the scoreboard. He remained calm, and steadied his shaky ship in the second set. Still, he dropped the tiebreak 7-5.
The Almighty Federer was in command, and, for the last eight years, he had never lost when up two sets. If he won the third set, he would tie the Wimbledon record for most consecutive sets won – 35.
But on this day, in which Rafa Nadal scored a thrilling five-set win over the considerable Juan Martin del Potro, nothing was typical except the clipped accents in the Royal Box. The chair umpire had the audacity to twice interrupt Federer as he was serving. Both a loud fan and a jet bothered the Swiss. More importantly, he felt he was just playing average ball.
Up 5-4 in the third set, Federer had a match point. But Anderson, at his moment of truth, went all out and forced a backhand error. Then he promptly did what hadn’t been done in eons. He blasted a backhand down the line, broke Roger’s serve and won the third set. Here was Anderson’s window of opportunity. Serving huge, imposing with his forehand and hitting potent down-the-line backhands, the first South African in the quarters since Wayne Ferreira in 1994, he won the fourth set and forced a fifth set for the ages.
Still, smart money told us that Roger doesn’t lose early. Mr. Consistency, he’s reached the semis here eleven times. He knows the stakes. He’s “only” won eight Wimbledons. Martina Navratilova has nine. And his ace rival Rafa has won eleven times at his favorite tourney, the French Open. The GOAT still has some mountains to climb. It’s said that Rafa was a fighter who became an artist, while Roger was an artist who became a fighter. Now Roger had to tap his inner Mick Jagger. Never mind artistry – the Swiss had to become the toughest street-fightin’ man in sleepy old London.
The fifth set was a gem – tennis with a compelling edge. Anderson, the 6’8” giant with the huge strokes and small fist pumps, didn’t let Roger relax. Federer had his opportunities – he blew a key volley and could not convert a break point. Anderson was flustered by Federer’s slices, which tangle up tall men. But he didn’t waver. A slightly lesser player on a slightly lesser court, against the best of all time, Kevin had already achieved his best Wimbledon result and survived a match point – why not just go for it?
In the locker room, John (“I’ll always be famous for my marathon”) Isner was given a taste of his own medicine as the fifth set marched on. Early in the fifth, both players offered some considerable challenges on their foe’s serve. Then they both held serve with some ease.
Up 7-6, Federer charged the net, challenging Anderson. “Hey, big guy, let’s see if you can pass me?” Kevin did – with courage and conviction. Now the match was about belief, execution and nerve. The two conserved their energy, then surged. A moment of truth lurked ahead, and fans roared. The greatest-of-all-time versus the benign beanpole who hoped to score the greatest upset of the year.
In the fateful 23rd game of the fifth set, the man with the best footwork in the game, the balletic legend whose greatest asset is his balance, slipped. This was Astaire tripping on Ginger. The tennis gods must be crazy. Roger suffered a double fault and an errant forehand. The man in Uniqlo didn’t glow. Anderson broke and served out the match.
On Friday he will face a man who is even taller than he is. Six-foot-ten American John Isner scored the greatest win of his career (that did not last three days), his 7-6 (5), 6-7 (7), 4-6, 3-6 victory over fellow North American Milos Raonic.
All the while, fans of fifth-set magic will long relish the day tall Prince Kevin usurped mighty King Roger out there on distant Court One.