On Centre Court

William Skidelsky

‘Will this be the last time I see him?’ I wondered as I trod the familiar route down Wimbledon Park Road on Monday. I was off to see Roger Federer – a month away from his fortieth birthday – taking on Lorenzo Sonego in the fourth round. There were two other matches scheduled on Centre Court – Novak Djokovic against Cristian Garin, and 17-year-old Coco Gauff against the former number one Angelique Kerber – but both felt almost beside the point. That’s the danger with extreme partisanship: it can suck the excitement out of everything else. When I watch other players, I judge them by Federer’s standards. And no one measures up.

This is especially true of Djokovic, whom I last saw in the flesh in 2019, when Federer lost to him in the Wimbledon final after holding two match points. Feeling no need to reacquaint myself with the top seed’s virtues, I went for a wander around the grounds while he played. On Court 4, I caught the second set of an intriguing match in the boys’ singles between Lui Maxted, a British player, and a Bulgarian named Petr Nesterov. Players like Maxted barely existed fifteen years ago, but they are now a lot more common – mostly thanks to Federer. Maxted has a magnificent one-handed backhand, slices regularly on both wings, and is comfortable at the net. Nesterov – a tall, uncomplicated baseliner – was gratifyingly out-foxed by the variety of shots coming his way. Maxted won in straight sets.

I met up with my friend Simon, a Federer-obsessed IT expert who has applied his skills to the task of buying Wimbledon tickets. (It was thanks to him that I went to the 2019 final.) This year, because of the pandemic, Wimbledon changed its ticketing practices, but he’d still managed to see Federer play twice the previous week, in the first and third rounds, and also had tickets for the men’s quarter-finals, semi-finals and final. I asked why he hadn’t gone to see Federer in the second round too. He said it would have been ‘too much of a good thing’.

Back on Centre Court, Djokovic had easily prevailed; Gauff v. Kerber was about to begin. Nearly everyone wanted Gauff to win, but she succumbed to the metronomic Kerber. Then Federer stepped on court. I was prepared for him to lose. He spent most of the last year and a half out with a knee injury. In Halle two weeks earlier, Felix Auger Aliassime had beaten him in the second round. He’d been at risk of losing his first match here when an injury forced his opponent to retire. And Sonego – tall and extremely powerful – is undoubtedly dangerous: he’d almost beaten Djokovic in Rome.

Yet it was clear right away that Federer was on his game. He always looks relaxed, but sometimes he looks especially relaxed, walking around the court as if out for an evening stroll, playing little games of catch with the ballboys. That’s when you know he means business. It took him a few games to find a read on Sonego’s booming serve, and there was a sloppy game serving for the first set at 5-4. But apart from that, his control was near total. By the time he was easing to 6-2 in the third set, the match seemed absurdly one-sided.

Not that I minded. I have never tired of watching Federer dominate his opponents, and it’s sad to think I may not get the chance again. Moments that seem almost run-of-the-mill on TV become miraculous when you see them live. Early on, he firmly blocked a 127 mph first serve with his backhand, and the ball drifted the length of the court before landing inches inside the baseline, forcing Sonego to back-pedal awkwardly. An almost routine shot for Federer – and way beyond anyone else.

Most of the match was played under the roof. It was drizzling when I left Centre Court, and my route out of the grounds took me past Henman Hill, where a crowd was gathered under plastic sheets and umbrellas to watch Emma Raducanu on the big screen. This was the match she ended up retiring from with breathing difficulties, but when I arrived it was still evenly poised. I would have liked to stay, but I had a train to catch. And Federer had won. Today he faces Hubert Hurkacz in the quarter-finals.


  • 14 July 2021 at 3:31am
    Laurie Strachan says:
    You can only measure a player by the success he has in the era in which he is playing. By that yardstick, the greatest player of all was definitely Rod Laver. He won the actual Grand Slam - that's all four major titles in one year - not once but twice, once as an amateur and once as a pro. This is, of course, no critcism of the brilliant Roger Federer,