The spectacle of Roger Federer on No 1 Court felt odd, like watching Sir Laurence Olivier back in repertory theatre, then the notion of him losing to Kevin Anderson, the gangly South African against whom he held match point, was almost unconscionable.
And yet lose he did, in a sprawling five-set epic lasting four hours and 14 minutes, as the prospect of him equalling Martina Navratilova’s record of nine Wimbledon singles titles slipped away in the early-evening sunshine. As inspired as Anderson was, the crowd’s reaction as the champion’s final shot wafted long felt like a deep and anguished sigh.
By and large, the RF-branded zealots who queue on Wimbledon Common for two days and upwards to salute their idol do not do so in anticipation of matches as churningly tense as this. They come instead to marvel at a travelling Swiss art installation, where the aesthetic is sumptuous but the outcome preordained.
Signs of “quiet, genius at work” were out in force after Federer polished off the first set without a bead of perspiration, but at some point, and even he seemed at a loss to identify exactly where, the unthinkable happened, as his play became ‒ would it be sacrilege to say it? ‒ predictable. “I couldn’t surprise him any longer,” he reflected. “That wasn’t a good feeling.”
It was Federer’s 16th Wimbledon quarter-final, a familiar ritual but this time a fundamentally different experience. The setting saw to that: while No 1 Court might be just a short and leafy stroll from Centre, it was, in Federer terms, the equivalent of Outer Mongolia. He had not been relegated to this secondary stage since 2015, when he prevailed in straight sets over Gilles Simon, and this time he looked, by the end at least, curiously uneasy.
The rationale of those in the referees’ office was clear enough: they glanced at the match-up and presumed Federer would squash Anderson in time for a mid-afternoon nap. Instead, they wound up scripting the type of marathon that can end even the greatest careers.
In 2002, Pete Sampras, then with seven Wimbledon titles, was shipped out to the boondocks of No 2 Court, where he succumbed in five to Swiss journeyman George Bastl. He never played a match at the All England Club again. It would be premature to suppose that Federer would take his own humbling in alien surrounds as his cue to step away, given his reassurance afterwards that “the goal is to come back next year”.
But he turns 37 next month, and nothing about this luminous autumn of his playing days should be taken for granted. As he gathered up his kit and headed for the exit, fans stayed in their thousands to photograph the moment, uncertain when, or indeed if, they would next have the chance.
Reassuringly, Federer’s sense of his own gifts was not dented by this defeat. It is a feature of his rare losses at major tournaments that he sweeps into his post-match press conference within minutes, and he handled this one with customary hauteur. His assessment of Anderson’s game? “Look, he’s got a nice, big serve that he can rely heavily on.” The expression “damning with faint praise” came to mind.
What was different about his opponent’s game this time? “He got when he needed to. Credit to him for hanging around that long.” When one reporter had the temerity to suggest that it had been a “bad day”, the mask of studied Swiss cool slipped a little. “It wasn’t bad,” he corrected her, crossly. “Average.”