Each year that Roger Federer returns to Wimbledon, the scene of eight of his grand slam titles and on the surface that has slotted so snugly into his game for two decades, he does so with the aim of winning the title once more. He may have arrived with similar intentions, but there are more elementary concerns these days. After two knee surgeries and over a year out of competition, he is still seeking the simple goal of feeling and playing like himself again after difficult months back on tour.
Under the Centre Court roof and against a quick-witted veteran opponent who knows his way around a grass court, those sensations did not quite arise even though he escaped. Federer reached the second round after Adrian Mannarino was forced to retire following a bad slip with the match finely poised at two sets apiece, the scoreline 6-4, 6-7 (3), 3-6, 6-2.
Across the net from Federer stood one of the unique games on the men’s tour. Mannarino is a diminutive lefty with some of the most compact, flat groundstrokes in the men’s game. Early on, Federer looked comfortable as he hit his spots on his serve well and struck his forehand with authority. He ended the first set with a tremendous return game at 5-4, sealed with a crosscourt backhand passing shot winner.
But as the second set wore on, Federer became increasingly tentative with his forehand as Mannarino cut down on his unforced errors. The Swiss remained in the set primarily down to strong serving under pressure but as the tie-break began Federer had lost all confidence in one of his primary weapons. He made a total of four forehand unforced errors in a dire tie-break, two of which were routine shanks that did not land near the court.
As Mannarino continued to play intelligently, forcing Federer to move into his forehand side with excellent angled backhands, the Swiss’s form only continued to drop as the third set began. He immediately fell down 0-2 after losing his serve with a horror game: four consecutive groundstroke errors on routine shots early in each point. After fighting hard and successfully regaining the break, he handed it back with another series of errors. Mannarino, meanwhile, with his sharp direction changes and sweet backhand, continually kept Federer off balance and calmly served out the set.
Federer started the fourth set by facing a break point, which he saved with a service winner, then held serve. He used the momentum well, playing by far his cleanest stretch of tennis since the first set, breezing to a 4-1 lead and looking on course for a fifth set. But at 4-2 and 15-all Mannarino badly slipped while retrieving a ball. He hurt 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 looks to see what is left for him to achieve so late in his career. In his four tournaments this year, he has won consecutive matches just once, compiling a 5-3 record before coming here. Although returning from a long layoff and multiple knee surgeries is extremely challenging, whether 39 or 19, Federer has taken some of those losses uncharacteristically hard.
Things came to a head two weeks ago in his second-round match against Felix Auger-Aliassime at Halle, the grass court tournament he had prioritised over Roland Garros when he withdrew from the fourth round in Paris. Federer became increasingly dejected with every passing game during the loss and he conceded the match with minimal fight, of which he said was not proud.
After defeats, Federer almost always strides into his press conferences immediately from the court. Instead, he spent two hours and 40 minutes mulling over the defeat with his coach, Ivan Ljubicic, and trying to compose himself before he emerged. “I think the whole difficulty of the comeback got to me a little bit,” he said. “How much I have to push on every 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 outlook was telling: “I feel I still really love it, enjoy myself. I will see about the results, if they’re going to come back. This is why Wimbledon is clearly very important to me right now.”
It is still early in both his comeback and the tournament, but this performance offered few answers on how high his level can rise again.