Every year that Roger Federer returns to Wimbledon, the scene of eight of his Grand Slam titles and on the surface that has fitted so well into his game for two decades, he does so in a bid to win the title once again. He may have arrived with similar intentions, but there are more basic concerns these days. After two knee surgeries and over a year out of competition, he’s still looking for the simple goal of feeling and playing like him again after difficult months back on tour.
Under the roof of center court and against a quick-witted veteran opponent who knows how to get by on a grass court, those sensations didn’t quite come through even though he escaped. Federer reached the second round after Adrian Mannarino was forced to retire following a bad slip with the match balanced in two sets apiece, the score being 6-4, 6-7 (3), 3-6, 6-2.
Across the net from Federer was one of the men’s circuit’s unique matches. Mannarino is a small southpaw with some of the most compact flat groundstrokes in the men’s game. At first, Federer looked comfortable as he hit his points well on his serve and hit his forehand with authority. He finished the first set with a formidable comeback at 5-4, sealed with a cross-back winning shot.
But as the second set progressed, Federer became increasingly hesitant with his forehand as Mannarino reduced his unforced errors. The Swiss stayed in the set mainly thanks to a powerful serve under pressure, but by the start of the tie-break Federer had lost all confidence in one of his main weapons. He made a total of four unforced forehand errors in a disastrous tie-break, two of which were routine rods that didn’t land close to the pitch.
As Mannarino continued to play smart, forcing Federer to move to the side of his forehand with excellent angled backhands, the Swiss’s form only plummeted early in the third set. He immediately fell 0-2 after losing his serve in a horror game: four consecutive groundstroke errors on routine shots at the start of each point. After a successful fight and regaining the station wagon, he returned it with another set of mistakes. Mannarino, meanwhile, with his abrupt changes of direction and gentle setback, continuously kept Federer off balance and calmly served the set.
Federer started the fourth set facing a breaking point, which he saved with a serve winner, then held the serve. He used the momentum well, playing by far his cleanest stretch of tennis since the first set, taking a 4-1 lead and looking on course for a fifth set. But at 4-2 and 15-all, Mannarino slipped badly recovering a ball. He injured his knee in the process and although he tried to continue he was forced to retire from one of the best performances of his life and on his 33rd birthday.
For Federer, his display reaffirms how complicated this period is as he seeks to see what remains for him to accomplish so late in his career. In his four tournaments this year, he’s only won consecutive games once, compiling a 5-3 record before coming here. While returning from a long layoff and multiple knee surgeries is extremely difficult, whether he’s 39 or 19, Federer has suffered some of these losses in unusual ways.
Things peaked two weeks ago in his second round match against Félix Auger-Aliassime in Halle, the grass tournament he prioritized over Roland Garros when he retired from the fourth round in Paris. Federer became more and more dejected with every passing game during the loss and he conceded the game with minimal fighting, which he said he was not proud of.
After losses, Federer almost always enters his press conferences immediately from the pitch. Instead, he spent two hours and 40 minutes pondering the loss with his coach, Ivan Ljubicic, and trying to pull himself together before going out. “I think the whole difficulty of the comeback touched me a bit,” he said. “How much do I have to push on each point, try to make things happen.”
On the eve of this tournament, as Federer discussed his longevity, he described the importance of this Wimbledon to him and his point of view was, “I feel like I still really love him, have fun.” I’ll see the results, if they come back. That is why Wimbledon is clearly very important to me at the moment.
He’s still early in his comeback and into the tournament, but this performance offered little answer on how his level may rise again.