Roger Federer’s first four wins at Wimbledon in 2018 certainly count. They count for rankings points. They count for grass-court wins, pushing him past Jimmy Connors for first place on the all-time list. Federer’s wins have brought him within 95 match wins of tying Connors for first place in the Open Era of professional tennis. Federer’s Wimbledon streak of consecutive sets won has now eclipsed 30. Yes, these victories count.
Yet, in a very real sense, Federer’s Wimbledon is only now about to begin.
That is not a criticism of Federer — far from it. Federer is good enough to blitz his opponents in some sets. He is calm enough to ride out the storm in others — he broke Jan-Lennard Struff at 5-5 in the second set on Friday, and he broke Adrian Mannarino at 5-5 in the second set on Monday, rising to the occasion when a pinch of anxiety could have unsettled him. Federer hasn’t been broken yet at this tournament, and unlike the 2017 tournament in which he faced tiebreakers in both the second and third rounds, Federer hasn’t dealt with a single tiebreaker through four rounds this year. Federer deserves full credit for making these first four rounds look easy. Federer’s empire has been largely built on the ability to get through early rounds at majors without strain, so that he has enough fuel in the tank to win protracted battles in the end stages of tournaments.
Yet, one can praise Federer — and note how efficient he has been through four matches — but still offer a cautionary note in the midst of his smooth ride: His draw has been very easy. No, not rigged (as fans of a certain player would have you believe, cough, cough), but very manageable.
(Side note: Draws for a No. 1 seed SHOULD be easier than the draws for lower-ranked players. This is a point which seems to escape everyone’s notice… and of course, when
Federer was seeded 17th at the 2017 Australian Open, he received a hugely difficult draw: Berdych-Nishikori-M. Zverev [which could have been Murray]-Wawrinka-Nadal in the final five rounds of his campaign.)
Let’s not pretend that Adrian Mannarino in the round of 16 at a major is a tough draw. Let’s not do the same for a third-round match against Struff, a player who is 28 years old and had never gotten past the third round of a major until this past week, when he needed five sets to beat 39-year-old Ivo Karlovic. Lukas Lacko in round two? That was not challenging to any real degree. Only Dusan Lajovic in the first round rated as a draw which was tougher than the round of the tournament suggested it should be. Even then, Lajovic is more comfortable on clay than grass. Federer could not have asked for a better path through four rounds.
Now, though, the plot thickens — at least to the extent that Federer shouldn’t be automatically penciled into the next round. (Mannarino? That was pretty much automatic, if we’re being brutally honest.)
Wednesday’s quarterfinals in many ways begin Federer’s Wimbledon. Even though the first four rounds count, now comes a match — against Kevin Anderson — in which brief lapses or mistakes could carry significant consequences. Now comes a match in which Federer will face a truly credentialed opponent, a solid top-10 player who has made a major final. Now comes a match in which the opponent has a reliable serve and a dependable follow-up forehand. None of Federer’s previous four opponents could say the same thing.
This is the one basic worry for Federer before a possible final against Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal, which would rate as a separate challenge altogether: If the opponent plays great, and he falls into a patch of difficulty, will his level still be high enough to prevail?
Before he gets to Sunday, Federer has to fight through big men — Anderson on Wednesday, and then either John Isner or Milos Raonic in a possible Friday semifinal. The style of opponent is something Federer should not be worried about. Federer has constantly defused huge servers at Wimbledon, from Andy Roddick to Mark Philippoussis to Marat Safin to Gilles Muller to the aforementioned Karlovic, and more. Federer focuses on blocking back the return near the baseline to make it hard for the server to easily finish the point with a sitter volley or easy short-ball forehand. If Federer, as a returner, can be in a relatively neutral position after four shots, he loves his chances, and he has used that formula, combined with his dependable serve, to win eight Wimbledons and make 11 finals.
The style of tennis Federer will be asked to play on Wednesday against Anderson — and if able to advance, on Friday against a tall North American pine tree, either American or Canadian — is something the Swiss knows how to employ. He will not face an elite returner or a superior baseliner. Federer certainly has to like his chances. However, one aspect of competition in any sport should give Federer ample reason for avoiding any sense of complacency.
It is true in any sport: When a team or athlete goes through a tournament rather easily, but suddenly runs into a tough opponent and receives that opponent’s best shot, it is often the case — not always, but frequent enough to notice — that the suddenly troubled team flinches under pressure. One of the best applications of this example occurred in 1991.
The University of Nevada at Las Vegas (UNLV) won the 1990 American college basketball championship. The 1991 team went unbeaten through its first 34 games and reached the semifinals of the national tournament as a mammoth favorite to win the title. The team’s first four games in the national tournament were decided by an average of 17.75 points, a very healthy margin. This team was a wrecking ball which destroyed nearly everything in its way. Games were not decided in the final minutes of regulation. UNLV was not often subjected to end-stage pressure.
Then came Duke University in the national semifinals. The school from North Carolina had a rugged and smart team which found a way to contain UNLV’s potent offense. Some UNLV players committed too many fouls in the game and had to be substituted for other, less talented players. The game was close heading into the final few minutes. UNLV, not accustomed to fighting for its life, plainly panicked and took bad shots. Duke made better plays down the stretch and won, 79-77, one of the most memorable upsets in college basketball history and in the history of American sports.
UNLV was the Federer of college basketball, but it didn’t win the sport’s equivalent of Wimbledon in 1991 because that tough contest, after a series of easy breezes against inferior opposition, produced a measure of panic. The outcome was close, but the needle tipped in the wrong direction.
Such is the potential challenge Federer has to be ready for against Anderson and then another big man on Friday.
Federer could hold serve in every service game and still lose tiebreakers, the way his idol, Stefan Edberg, lost the 1991 semifinals of Wimbledon to Michael Stich. (1991 has a place in this story, as you can see.) Federer could lose serve only once in the whole match, but that might be enough to give Anderson a 7-5 set, which if coupled with a few tiebreaker wins, could send Federer packing.
Sure, Federer has to like his chances, but the brief lapses he had against Mannarino on Monday — which were not punished — could become significant against Kando and especially Raonic, the one man to have beaten Federer in a Wimbledon semifinal. (Federer is 11-1 in semifinals at SW19.)
Federer hasn’t had to measure his game against quality opponents. Beginning Wednesday, he finally will… and he needs to be ready to take a punch, ready to win a tiebreaker or two, ready to stay on top of the margins which are about to shrink.
Federer should be trusted. He should receive the benefit of the doubt… but as the 1991 UNLV basketball team could tell you, owning the benefit of the doubt means nothing if a few minutes go the wrong way.
That is what Roger Federer will need to guard against, as much as anything else, when his 2018 Wimbledon unofficially “begins” on Wednesday.
Source: Paul Gilham/Getty Images Europe