Every year that Roger Federer returns to Wimbledon, the scene of eight of his Grand Slam titles and on the surface that has fitted his game so well for two decades, he does so with the goal of winning the title once again. It may have come up with similar intentions, but there are more basic concerns these days. After two knee surgeries and more than a year out of competition, he is still pursuing the simple goal of feeling and playing like himself again after difficult months on the road.
Under the roof of center court and against a quick-witted veteran opponent who knows his way on a grass court, those feelings didn’t quite come even though he escaped. Federer reached the second round after Adrian Mannarino was forced to retire after a bad slip, the score 6-4, 6-7 (3), 3-6, 6-2 ret.
On the other side of Federer’s net was one of the only games on the men’s tour. Mannarino is a diminutive southpaw with some of the tightest and flattest groundstrokes in the men’s game. At first, Federer looked comfortable when he hit his serve points well and hit his forehand with authority. He finished the first set with a tremendous return game at 5-4, sealed with a winning cross backhand shot.
But as the second set progressed, Federer became increasingly tentative with his forehand as Mannarino reduced his unforced errors. The Swiss remained on set mainly due to heavy serve under pressure, but by the time the tie-break began, Federer had lost all confidence in one of his main weapons. He made a total of four unforced forehand errors in a terrible playoff, two of which were routine punches that didn’t land close to the court.
While Mannarino continued to play smartly, forcing Federer to move to his forehand side with excellent angled backhand, the Swiss’s form only continued to drop as the third set began. He immediately fell 0-2 after losing his serve to a horror game: four consecutive groundstroke errors on routine shots at the start of each point. After fighting hard and successfully recovering the break, he returned it with another series of errors. Meanwhile, Mannarino, with his abrupt changes of direction and sweet reverse, continually kept Federer off balance and calmly served the set.
Federer started the fourth set facing a break point, which he saved with a winning serve, then kept the serve. He used momentum well, playing by far his cleanest stretch of tennis since the first set, reaching a 4-1 lead and looking for a fifth set. But at 4-2 and 15-15 Mannarino slipped badly while recovering a ball. He injured his knee in the process and, although he tried to continue, he was forced to withdraw from one of the best performances of his life and on his 33rd birthday.
For Federer, his performance reaffirms how difficult this period is, as he looks to see what he has left to accomplish so late in his career. In his four tournaments this year, he has won consecutive matches just once, compiling a 5-3 record before the event. Although coming back from a long hiatus and multiple knee surgeries is extremely challenging, whether he’s 39 or 19, Federer has taken some of those losses in unusual ways.
Things came to a head two weeks ago in his second-round match against Felix Auger-Aliassime in Halle, the turf tournament he had prioritized over Roland Garros when he retired from the fourth round in Paris. Federer grew increasingly dejected with each passing game during the loss and conceded the match with a minimal fight, which he said he was not proud of.
After losses, Federer almost always arrives at his press conferences immediately from the court. Instead, he spent two hours and 40 minutes reflecting on the loss with his coach, Ivan Ljubicic, and trying to compose himself before emerging. “I think all the difficulty of the comeback affected me a bit,” he said. “How much do I have to push at each point, try to make things happen.”
On the eve of this tournament, as Federer spoke of his longevity, he described the importance of this Wimbledon to him and his perspective was revealing: “I feel like I still love it, I enjoy it. I will see the results, if they will come back. That’s why Wimbledon is clearly very important to me right now. ”
It is still early in both his comeback and the tournament, but this performance offered few answers as to how high he can raise his level again.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism