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Match Points: the Great Escape

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Originally published on: 22/06/10 08:51

Men’s Singles, Round 1: Roger Federer d. Alejandro Falla 5-7 4-6 6-4 7-6(1) 6-0

The shadow of Pete Sampras has always loomed largest over Federer at Wimbledon. The fourteen-time Grand Slam champion and the only man to better the mark faced each other just once professionally – naturally, on the turf of the All England Club. Federer’s fourth-round four-set victory in 2001 reduced him to tears, ended a 31-match winning streak that had seen Sampras win four consecutive titles, and marked a shift in the game’s paradigms.

Of all the bars the American set for his Swiss friend to square his name alongside the game’s greats, so many now raised, two remain enticingly close. One more journey to the summit of the ATP rankings will see Federer tie Sampras’ 286 weeks as world No.1, a mark of great personal significance to a man who values the title as a measure of his undoubted dominance of the sport. A seventh Wimbledon crown, to tie both the American and William Renshaw’s tally from the game’s antiquity, would be an accolade for the ages.

On Monday, however, Federer could only evoke memories of the Pete Sampras of 2002.

It was the year when George Bastl unceremoniously ousted the man then considered the greatest grass court player of all time in a second round five-set contest, a result that proved to be the ageing great’s inglorious Wimbledon finale, a blot on an otherwise unrivalled copybook. But for long periods on the first day’s play of these Championships, it looked as if Federer was set to post another parallel, before surviving his greatest scare at the All England Club with a victory Houdini would herald over a clay-court journeyman from Columbia.

Alejandro Falla was meant to be the fall guy. The ritual sacrifice. The statistic, less memorable than the statement ensemble Nike had dreamed up for Brand RF and that first catwalk outing onto Centre Court. When he ambled up to his chair with the uneasy sway of someone regretting the extra-long training run he had taken the day before, he looked like a man who knew his unremarkable place all too well.

Appearances, it transpired, were deceptive. In the early exchanges Falla looked less like a player who has never so much as featured in an ATP final or the world’s top 50, and more like Roger Federer’s worst nightmare – a swinging leftie playing without fear, and with a game plan. A career forged on the clay court circuit has grooved the Columbian’s heavy bread-and-butter cross-court forehand, a shot that naturally pushes on the pressure point that is the Federer backhand. It was a simple ploy that allowed him to dictate the play once he had Federer on the defensive. That ploy, and that pressure, against his out-of-sorts opponent, told.

Staying with the defending champion is one thing, but the Columbian proved he was not simply containing the top seed when he broke in game eleven and served out the first set. A blip, perhaps? It looked less so when Falla again broke midway through the second and, even more impressively than in the first set, held on for a two set lead.

Federer now found himself in a position he had only escaped from five times in his career before today, though he was to be given a helping hand. Falla arrived on court with what appeared to be a hamstring injury, and from the start of the third set he wore the look of a man who couldn’t believe that the biggest moment of his career had presented itself while he was in no shape to deal with it.

Yet he threatened to do just that. Astonishment, awe and beguiling appreciation of this unlikeliest of unlikelies peaked among the Centre Court crowd at 4-4 in the third set. As the two-hour mark approached, Falla received three shots at the chance to serve for the match – gifted to him by more sloppy play from the champ. All three passed him by, as did a fourth before the game was out. Belief on court from both men had hit an all-time low, and with it went quality. Now we had something entirely different – a chokeout. It may qualify as the ugliest game-changing point in Roger Federer’s repertoire, but beauty was not the object – survival was key.

A second deuce. Federer served to Falla’s backhand, and the Columbian battered a cross-court return to expose the backhand once more. Federer did well to jam the ball into Falla’s feet on the run, but was left to field a deep looping half-volley that followed. All he could muster was a floaty slice that Falla drove to the opposite corner, forcing Federer to punt the ball back with a forehand get. Had Falla been at the net the rally would be over, but he hesitated, stayed back, and then followed his backhand down the line in. He was a shot late. Federer’s backhand may have been safe and central but it stayed low, and Falla fluffed the drop volley. In came the Swiss after the lofted ball, up went Falla’s attempted lob volley and away went a backhand smash that drew a telling fist-pump from Federer and a standing ovation from the stands for the sheer drama of it all.

The momentum switch wasn’t instant, but the match turned on its axis right there. Falla had submitted to nerves while Federer rode on his. Falla broke to open the fourth, but after seeing that lead slip away as well, the game was up.

Falla was almost famous; Federer was almost history. He lives to fight another day, but how many more days at Wimbledon are left in him? In the press conference afterwards at times he looked almost remorseful, hanging his head and offering wry smiles amid confident soundbites and jokes. He received a lesson in his game’s mortality from Falla, just as Sampras did at the hands of Bastl.

The difference is he also received a reprieve.

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