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September 18, 2021

At Wimbledon, Roger Federer Is Staying Firmly in the Moment

WIMBLEDON, England — Wimbledon runs on nostalgia, from the grass courts and the all-white clothing rule to the neckties in the clubhouse.

There are plenty of modern touches: the retractable roofs and the huge viewing screen in front of Aorangi Terrace, better known as “Henman Hill.”

But the All England Club and its tournament still evoke days gone by, and the stars have done their part this week, particularly on Centre Court, where Andy Murray and Roger Federer have taken turns cranking back the clock.

Murray, in his first appearance at Wimbledon since 2017, reached the third round Wednesday night with a scrappy, uneven, inspiring five-set win over Oscar Otte. Federer amplified the theme late Thursday afternoon, shifting into a higher gear against Richard Gasquet after a scratchy start full of mis-hits and shakes of his head.

But Gasquet, a Frenchman, remains one of Federer’s most reliable muses.

At 35, he is only four years younger than Federer, whom he first played in 2005. Gasquet’s game is also a crowd pleaser, with his great timing, elastic follow-throughs and flashy one-handed backhand.

He, not Federer, hit the shot of the match Thursday — a 102 mph backhand winner from deep behind the baseline off a well-struck overhead that Federer had hit from the opposite baseline.

Federer could only turn away quickly as the Centre Court crowd gave Gasquet the love the shot deserved and Gasquet grinned in appreciation. It was 40-0 on Gasquet’s first service game of the second set, and that masterstroke inspired more than the crowd.

“I got on a roll after that,” Federer said.

He rallied to break Gasquet’s serve, sweeping to a 5-0 lead as he took time away from the Frenchman by striking the ball earlier and much more cleanly. He also counterpunched with a younger man’s reflexes, defending his forehand corner with fast-twitch efficiency.

As the French say, “On connaît la chanson,” and Gasquet knows that same old song better than most. He is 2-19 against Federer, who beat him, most memorably, in 2014 to win Switzerland’s first and only Davis Cup.

The final score Thursday: 7-6 (1), 6-1, 6-4. It has been another good week for Swiss sportsmen against the French. But this victory was nowhere near as surprising as Switzerland’s upset win on penalties in the Euro 2020 Monday.

Gasquet, for all his talent and staying power, has yet to take a set off Federer in a Grand Slam tournament.

“I don’t know if he can win the title, but he still has an exceptional level,” Gasquet said. “He still has a unique ball-striking ability, and he still moves very fast.”

All that seemed true in the late-afternoon sunshine Thursday, just as Federer’s decline had seemed evident under a closed roof Tuesday as he lost two of the first three sets against Adrian Mannarino, another French veteran he has long dominated. But Mannarino ended up retiring with a knee injury at the start of the fifth set after a nasty fall on the Centre Court grass.

Even Federer, usually as sure-footed as a mountain goat, slipped Thursday, but this was still a much more reassuring performance.

His delight and relief were palpable, reflected in his good cheer in post-match interviews as he lobbied tongue-in-cheek for crowd support in his next match based on 20 years of service at Wimbledon. On Saturday he will face Britain’s Cameron Norrie in the third round, surely on Centre Court.

Whatever happens from here, and the odds are still against Federer and Murray, it seems clear that both have found some of what they were seeking when they returned to Wimbledon: the roars, the chills, the sensation that, for a match or even a couple of sets, they still have it. Murray, 34, is playing with an artificial hip joint, Federer after two operations on his right knee.

“Every athlete’s why is a bit different, but what is a common thread with any champion athlete still competing in their twilight years is a pure love of the game,” said Darren Cahill, who met Federer when he was in his early teens.

Cahill coached Andre Agassi in his final years on tour, including his last: 2006, when because of back pain, Agassi had difficulty walking out of the locker room after his farewell matches at the U.S. Open.

“While it was a struggle, the memories he gave us at that last U.S. Open against Andrei Pavel and Marcos Baghdatis still feel like yesterday,” Cahill said. “They will last forever. Andy got a taste of that last night, and it might inspire him more. The same applies to Roger. If these matches are important for these great champions, these moments are important to us, and the effort should always be appreciated. You can critique the tennis but never the why.”

On Friday, it will be 20 years to the day since Federer became a true tennis star. On July 2, 2001, he played his first match on Centre Court, surprising Pete Sampras, the reigning Wimbledon champion, in five sets in the fourth round. It was Federer’s only official match with Sampras, who later became a friend, and he finished it with a clean forehand return winner.

The match bears re-watching and not just for Federer’s ponytail and shell necklace. It embodied a different era of grass-court tennis in quicker conditions: full of relentless aggression and the serve-and-volley tactics that Federer has never used so often again on his way to surpassing Sampras with a record eight Wimbledon singles titles.

“Back then, I did serve and volley on break points in the fifth set and hit half volleys and all that,” Federer said Thursday. “Today you tell yourself perhaps that’s not such a good idea with Gasquet and his backhand. So you stay back, but at that time, you said let’s see what happens. You said, I will not live or die at the baseline. I will live or die at the net. But times have changed.”

Federer was asked what he might want to take from the game of that 19-year-old who beat the great Sampras and then lost to Tim Henman in the next round.

Federer thought for quite a while and then explained that what he would borrow was the insouciance — the reliance on gut feeling at a time when tennis was, in his view, much less about statistics and analyzing return tendencies and service patterns.

“Against Sampras at the end when I hit the final forehand, I said he’s going to serve to my forehand, and I don’t know why but I feel it and I see it and it’s going to happen and if it does, I’m going to have it,” he said. “It’s these kind of moments when you have nothing to lose, and you go so much with the moment.”

Federer acknowledged that instinct still has its place. Power tennis in the 2020s gives players even less time to react, to think on their feet.

But the remarkable part is that 20 years later, Federer still knows how to win matches on Centre Court, even if winning seven of them in a row sounds like too much to ask.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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