Wimbledon: Federer battles through to win despite back injury
Drama is stalking Roger Federer. On Friday it was manifest in the shape of a tall Frenchman, Julien Benneteau, who walked Federer to the edge of the cliff before falling to his own doom in the final set.
Yesterday, the impediment was medical, a dodgy back forcing him from the court to seek emergency treatment. This being Federer he bore his discomfiture with stoic forbearance, apologised to his opponent, Xavier Malisse, for any inconvenience, then put him away ruthlessly just the same.
Who knows by what mechanism the great players overcome adversity? The injury had effectively wrapped Federer in a straitjacket so much did it hinder rhythm and flow, yet still he found the resolve to work his way to a 7-6, 6-1, 4-6, 6-3 victory.
"It was a bit of a shock at the start of the first set. I played on it for three or four games then asked for the doctor and decided to have treatment inside. I had to apologise to Xavier. I know how hard it is to play when someone is injured. It is difficult to play like that. One of those things," Federer said.
Federer made it to 3-4 before calling for assistance. It was not immediately clear what was troubling him. The cold, blustery conditions made fluent shot-making impossible. Federer's timing was off, but not markedly. His decision to leave the court suggested a significant problem.
There was no immediate relief on his return, with Malisse breaking to lead 6-5 and serve for the set. Whether it was the pain relief kicking in or a champion's heart, Federer's visceral response suggested a cure had been found. He broke back to save the set then ran away with the tie-break as the first rains of the day began to fall. The players were off for 46 minutes, time enough to close the roof, which would have guaranteed a finish without further disruption. Though the forecasters had no faith in a dry afternoon, the roof monitor took the risk and the match resumed under a brooding sky instead of a 1,000-tonne canopy designed to protect against precisely these conditions.
It was his lucky day. The downpour held off until 5pm, by which time Federer was tucking into his afternoon tea. Malisse appeared to be playing himself as much as Federer. The loss of a point would trigger an internal inquest, which took the form of exaggerated gesturing, pointing and muttering. After the weather interruption he was unrecognisable from the player who served for the first set.
The second disappeared in a blur of unforced errors from him and deft touches from Federer. Even with a dodgy lumber, the backhand that sealed the set for Federer was a thing of majesty, flicked across court past the advancing Malisse. The angle was tight and required of Federer a protractor as well as a gossamer touch.
Malisse announced himself to the British audience a decade ago with a five-set win against Greg Rusedski en route to the semi-finals. He roused himself sufficiently yesterday to break Federer in the opening game of the third set to steal the momentum and gain a foothold in the match. Federer, clearly labouring again, could not fashion a response. He lost his serve a second time and at the end of the set was forced to leave the court once more. Malisse broke in the opening game of the fourth to raise the prospect of another five-set ordeal for the player advancing on a seventh Wimbledon championship and 17th grand slam title.
But a break in the fourth game saw Federer back on terms, helped by the return of Malisse's muttering alter-ego. A second break brought victory into view. There is no anaesthetic in tennis like the racking up of points.
With the finish line in sight, Federer galloped towards the tape. The ace with which he closed out the match seemed like an act of cruelty against an opponent who had showed him commendable patience. That's Federer. Pitiless. He was already looking toward the next match. The ace was for Russian Mikhail Youzhny, whom he faces in the quarter-final tomorrow; a warning delivered at 130mph.
"The back is OK," he said. "Over 15 years on tour the back hurts sometimes. You hope it doesn't strike in a big match. I was in a lot of pain and I was in big trouble at 6-5 when he served for the first set. The treatment and painkillers helped. If this is as bad as it gets, I'm happy. It felt better as the match wore on. I'm not too worried. I have a day and a half and expect to be fine for the next match."