When Roger Federer steps onto Centre Court without a racquet bag slung over his shoulder, he's usually contesting the final. The sight of a disarmed Federer returning to the court beneath an ominous overcast sky invoked a different fear factor today.
The six-time Wimbledon champion took a rare medical time-out for treatment of a strained back after the seventh game of the opening set, but fought back from a break down in both the first and fourth sets to stave off Belgian shotmaker Xavier Malisse, 7-6 (1), 6-1, 4-6, 6-3, and advance to his 33rd consecutive major quarterfinal.
On a chilly, breezy day, a stubborn light mist stuck around for much of the match; spitting showers forced the suspension of play at one point. The combination of Federer's aching back, stiff movement, and threatening skies conspired to cast a shadow of uncertainty over the proceedings.
Coming off his grueling five-set battle against Julien Benneteau, Federer saved three break points in his second and third service games, but lacked his usual explosiveness running to the wide ball, particularly when stretched on his forehand. Netting a running forehand, Federer handed Malisse the break and a 6-5 lead.
Federer is a man of many streaks, but one of his most underrated is the fact he has never retired from a professional match. So when he took an injury timeout and walked off the court for treament for his back, the concern was evident on the faces of wife Mirka and coach Paul Anaccone seated in the front row of the friend's box. After eight minutes, Federer returned.
"This is the worst I've seen him on a tennis court in terms of struggling with an injury," said ESPN analyst Darren Cahill, who briefly worked with Federer as a coaching consultant.
Serving for the set, Malisse could not find his first serve; Federer attacked and blocked a slick volley to break back. Malisse then made a mess of the breaker, committing four unforced errors. Federer ended it by fooling the X-Man with a forehand drop shot winner that left Malisse slipping on the turf.
Moving even more freely in the second, Federer ran off six straight games and broke serve three times in a row. He sealed the set in style, twirling a dipping backhand pass at an extreme angle to take a two-set lead.
It seemed that Malisse, sporting a scraggly beard that makes him look a little like a London street musician, might just fade into the mist. Instead, he tuned it up. The 2002 semifinalist broke to open the third set, which he won, and went up 2-0 in the fourth. But a shanked forehand off a bad bounce caused Malisse to to drop serve as Federer broke back for 2-all, and the Swiss never looked back in a win that was more about grit than grace.
"My back is OK, it started to feel better as the match went on," Federer told the BBC. "It comes and goes. When you play on tour for over 15 years the back does hurt at times, you just hope it doesn't come in a big match. It was scary, but the treatment was a big help."