The Wimbledon crowd gave Roger Federer his first standing ovation of the day just for making it safely out on to court, and his second, one hour and 53 minutes later, for making it safely off again. In between he defeated Richard Gasquet in straight sets, 7‑6 (1), 6-1, 6-4.
It was not one of the great matches, not that it mattered much to anyone watching. They all memorable now. It is a treat to see him simply because no one is sure how many more he has left in him. Federer turns 40 in August, and has said himself that the pandemic made him feel self-reflective, and that he has been thinking about retirement.
The atmosphere around Federer feels a little different this year: there is a palpable uncertainty about him – a sense that, after 23 years of playing at Wimbledon, he might finally be winding up. First, though, he plays Britain’s Cameron Norrie. Federer likes Norrie, and said as much after beating Gasquet.
“Cam’s a good guy, he’s had a wonderful year too, played great at Queen’s and he’s backed it up here. I’m happy for him.” Then he broke into a big and mischievous smile. “But enough now. He needs to go out, I need to go through.” The crowd cheered that, too.
Federer was not at his best in the first set. By his immaculate standards he was a little loose, almost sloppy. He has played only 10 matches in the past 18 months, and is still feeling his way back into his game. His thinking was a little soft, his shot‑making a little forgiving. But then, against Gasquet, he could afford for that to be the case.
These two have played each other 21 times now. Federer has won 19 of them, including the last 11 in a row, and all five of the matches they have played at grand slam tournaments. You have to go all the way back to the Rome Masters in 2011 to find the last time Gasquet even managed to win a set against him.
Gasquet had three break points in Federer’s first service game, but failed to take any of them. When the first set reached a tie-break, Federer slipped a gear and started all of a sudden to play with some of that old ruthless authority.
He took it 7-1. And he gave a glimpse, in the way he celebrated by pumping his fist and shouting to himself, of just how much this all means to him.
You guess the prospect of making a run this fortnight is what got him through all those weeks of painstaking rehabilitation after the two rounds of knee surgery he had last year. Even after all this time, and all those titles, he still feels like he has some unfinished business at the All England club.
Gasquet was a goner from there on, but still played some exquisite tennis on his way to losing. One shot, a backhand reply to a Federer smash that went whistling down the line at over 100mph, was as spectacular as anything we’ll see in these championships. Much good it did him.
“I know Richard really well because we’ve played so many times,” Federer said. “He’s got the most wonderful backhand, and after he ripped that one down the line I thought to myself: ‘If I can do even something a little similar to that I will be happy with myself’, so he really inspired me there.”
Federer took the game, after being 40-0 down, and then the set, too, 6-1. The third set turned into something of an exhibition, there were a lot of handsome shots that drew hoots and coos from the happy crowd, whose only complaint was that it was all over too quickly. Federer felt it was one of the best matches he’s played since he came back from surgery.
“It was a nice match back for me. I felt good physically, much more relaxed in many ways, as I was able to play a really good tie-breaker, then have a great hour. What I was able to do today gives you a lot of confidence. You can start to play so much more freely. I was able to do that with my shots. Then the shot-making comes into it, then the variation comes into it, also move correctly, you’re much more clear in your head.”
On Friday he is planning to organise his day around the football so he can watch Switzerland’s quarter‑final against Spain in the European Championship. “I’ll be supporting the underdog in that match,” Federer said.
He knows the crowd on Centre Court might be doing that when he plays Norrie, too. “That’s OK,” he said. “Sometimes I like the underdog, too.” Just so long as he doesn’t lose to him, that is.