LONDON—Inside Centre Court at Wimbledon, it was 12:30 p.m. It was a warm Monday, with the temperature near 80 and a mild breeze in the air. Inside “the Centre” (a term often employed by locals in the know), as fans streamed in to take their seats, the atmosphere was akin to that of an impending ritual—wedding, funeral, baptism, coronation—scheduled to occur at a clearly defined time. No dawdling. Please don’t be late.
In this case, all were gathered for the launching of a title defense; more pointedly, this being Wimbledon, not just a sporting event, but athletic theatre of the highest order. At 1:00 p.m., the holder, Roger Federer, would stride onto Centre Court to play his first-round match versus 57th-ranked Dusan Lajovic.
Prior to the arrival of the players, officials and ball-kids entered the court, each troupe given a warm ovation. Upon the entrance of Federer and his theoretical victim—more accurately, the opponent, Lajovic too clad in whites, he too a world-class player—the volume increased significantly, accompanied by a standing ovation. Hail to the king.
Over the last 23 hours, Federer had been under the public microscope that defines his life—nowhere more so than at Wimbledon. The previous day, just prior to 2:00 p.m., two dozen cameramen awaited his arrival for a practice session. Ninety minutes later, now clad in a blazer with a Wimbledon club member pin affixed to his right lapel, Federer faced a packed media interview room and held court on everything from the 2008 epic final he’d lost to Rafael Nadal to his criteria for selecting practice partners to his looks and his feelings on once again taking Centre Court as champion.
“It’s a big deal,” Federer had said about tennis’ most prominent court. “I mean, besides the history and the mythical place that it is, you cannot also practice on it. When you come out, there’s a bit of uncertainty for both players, from a very quiet week and site that we’ve seen this week, it’s just packed everywhere. The entire atmosphere changes at Wimbledon, and you realize the eyes are on you.”
WATCH—Match point from Federer's win over Lajovic:
Monday morning, at 10:29 a.m., one minute before Wimbledon’s gates opened, Federer strolled—and I do mean the word strolled—on to Court 15 for a pre-match hit. Within five minutes, those stands too were filled. Without a doubt, Federer could probably each day sell 10,000 tickets merely to watch him swat a few leisurely forehands, backhands, volleys, smashes and serves for 20 brisk but captivating minutes.
The only other time Federer and Lajovic had previously played one another was also at Wimbledon. A year ago, in the second round, the first set of their match reached 6-all. At last shaking off his early sluggishness, Federer won that tiebreaker without the loss of a point and then rolled through the next two sets, 6-3, 6-2.
Was there a chance of early jitters once again? Speaking of Wimbledon’s grass at his pre-tournament press conference yesterday, Federer had said, “maybe after six games or so or something, you’ll all of a sudden get the feel for it, how it used to be. That might calm the nerves down.”
All was revealed in the first 15 minutes—the exact amount of time for Federer to complete those potentially patchy opening six games. Following an opening hold by Lajovic, Federer smoothly showed off an incredibly wide spectrum of shots. There was a chip-charge return, the viciously whipped forehand, dart-like wide serves, several select but emphatic serve and volleys on a second serve, forehand drop shots, swing volleys, reflex volleys, rolling passing shots. Barely had the crowd settled and it was 5-1 for Federer.
“When the match started, I really felt like nerves settled,” said Federer. “I returned well quickly. I felt my legs were moving. That's then what gave me the confidence quickly to see like, Okay, I think I know very quickly within two to four games what I need to do to cause problems for Lajovic.”
DAILY SERVE—Recapping Wimbledon's first day of play
Three minutes short of 2:00 p.m., Federer had captured the first two sets, 6-1, 6-3. Breaking early to start the third, Federer ran out the final set 6-4, upping his career Wimbledon record to 92-11. Federer’s stat sheet glittered—23 of 28 at the net, 35 winners to just 16 unforced errors, five service breaks, not once even facing a break point. The theoretical victim had become an early afternoon snack.
For fans, Federer’s eclectic array of artistry and craftsmanship is quite pleasing. For opponents, it is profoundly unnerving. How next is this guy going to hurt me? And yet, while it is one thing to have an opponent pound you into submission, it is arguably even more implicating to face one’s own creative limitations. Though Lajovic owns a rather smooth one-handed backhand, once he’d been cured and filleted by Federer, the Serb had little idea how to deploy it in any meaningful sense. In the battle of ideas, imagination and even mere inquiry, Lajovic was woefully inadequate, both qualitatively and quantitatively—14 winners, 24 unforced errors, a meager eight of 18 at the net.
Against a reasonably skilled adversary, in front of a packed Centre Court, with millions around the globe watching, Federer had paid attention to nothing but the ball – both what he wanted to do and the liberties permitted by his opponent’s shots. With all those eyes on him, Federer had once again shown what it was like to have the whole world to himself.
Strokes of Genius is a world-class documentary capturing the historic 13-year rivalry between tennis icons Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It is timed for release as the anticipation crests with Roger as returning champion, 10 years after their famed 2008 Wimbledon championship – an epic match so close and so reflective of their competitive balance that, in the end, the true winner was the sport itself.