By Alix Ramsay
Then again, back in January when he was asked about the possibility of becoming world No.1 again, he had smiled the same smile. Then he pointed out that it would take a couple of Grand Slam wins at least to get the job done – and he was turning 36 in August.
Yet there is a glint in his eye as he prowls around the All England Club this year. And there was a predatory look about him as he moved into the third round with a 7-6 (0), 6-3, 6-2 win over Dusan Lajovic in the evening light of Day Four. If someone has to be favourite, it might as well be him, no matter how old everyone keeps telling him he is.
So, can lightning really strike twice for the Mighty RF? No one could believe it – not even Federer – when the sport’s favourite GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) came back from a six month lay-off to rest his gammy knee and immediately won the Australian Open back in January. That had to be a one-off.
Then, when he announced that he was skipping the whole of the clay court season in order to rest his poor old body – and 35 is very, very old as we all know – we all chortled. Well, why wouldn’t he?
But in reality, taking time away from the match court, no matter how young or old you are, it a tricky business. It takes time to work yourself back into shape, into that match-tightness that makes the difference between just playing and winning. Surely Federer could not bounce back like a rubber ball. Not at the age of 35 (which, as we have established, is very, very old).
However, Federer is not as other players. There have been times in his career when some of us have doubted whether he is human – no mere mortal could play like that, after all. He bounded back to the grass courts and won the title in Halle a couple of weeks ago and in the brief 43 minutes he was on court against Alexandr Dolgopolov in the first round here, he looked to be gliding through the motions.
Perhaps, though, even GOATs can have momentary lapses, rare occasions when they become like the rest of us and make mistakes. And as he began against Lajovic, Federer did look a little – dare we say it? – ordinary. There were unforced errors. There were fluffs and flaps. Worse still, there was Lajovic breaking serve and taking a 2-0 lead. What on earth was going on?
Oh, ye of little faith. As he builds his Wimbledon campaign, Federer is aiming to be the first man in history to win the trophy here for the eighth time. He is aiming to be the first man to win 19 Grand Slam titles (so breaking his own record of 18 set back in Australia). A bit of an average first set in the second round was not going to derail that express train.
Just by way of contrast, Lajovic, a sturdy chap with a fair amount of power and a willingness to try whatever it took to make an impression, was aiming to win back-to-back matches on a grass court for the first time in his 27-year-old life. And that is at any level, from Challengers upwards.
Breaking back, the pair headed to the tie-break and once there, Federer did not blink. No panic, no dramas. He simply engaged the afterburners and roared into the second set without allowing his Serbian foe a single, solitary point.
He kept up that pressure in the second set, bullying the world No.79 and eventually breaking him to take a 3-1 lead. From there, there was no way back for the Serb. As another set was gathered up and stuffed in the Swiss’s kitbag, Lajovic looked like he had had enough. He was doing everything he could think of and he was getting marmalised. The third set progressed in the same manner – Federer was looking like a favourite and there was nothing Lajovic could do about it.
“I struggled early on,” Federer explained. “I couldn’t get rid of the nerves. It was a pity I couldn’t hold my serve. Even though I got back into the game after that because I broke him, I just struggled in that first set. After that I was happy to get rid of the nerves, just to play some free tennis, more inspired and at the end it was actually pretty good.”
Next up for Federer is Mischa Zverev, another gentleman of advancing years but one who is having the best spell of his career. A left hander, a serve-and-volleyer, he may not beat the GOAT but it should be a cracking match, nonetheless.