After a trying opening round match that ended in the retirement of his surging opponent, Adrian Mannarino, then a routine second round win against his historic punching bag, Richard Gasquet, as Roger Federer stepped onto Centre Court to face Cameron Norrie, his form was still a source of curiosity. Theoretically, by retrieving far more balls, committing fewer errors and playing with confidence, it was believed that Norrie might just be able offer enough resistance to cause him discomfort.
That is how their third round match played out but only small parts of it, as Federer cruised for two sets then very nearly found himself in a five-set shootout. Eventually, he recovered to reach the second week with a tough 6-4, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 win. Federer has now reached the fourth round at Wimbledon a record-extending 18 times and he remains the all-time leader for grand slam fourth-round appearances after his 69th this week.
He will face the fast-rising Italian Lorenzo Sonego, who defeated James Duckworth 6-3, 6-4, 6-4, another step up in quality.
“I am very pleased,” said Federer. “Super relieved. It was a tough battle with Cam. He deserved that third set, I thought he played excellent today. For me, I felt I was able to keep a very high level of play. Overall, I can be very happy with how I played.”
A cool afternoon on Centre Court was also witness to one of the stranger sporting spectacles in sport – the wildly popular Federer, who is cheered wherever he goes, versus a home favourite. Unable to decide on who to cheer for, the Centre Court crowd hollered for both players with the full force of their larynges.
Despite contesting two major third-round matches this year against Rafael Nadal, a Centre Court contest against Federer in front of his home crowd was clearly one of the big moments of Norrie’s career so far. Unfortunately for Norrie, that was all too clear from the very beginning as he felt the weight of the occasion from the opening game, where he double faulted three times.
Throughout the first set, Norrie was unable to settle into the match and, as his opponent floundered, Federer started smoothly. He served well and after his serious struggles for much of his first round match, Federer struck his forehand with authority and freedom as he moved up two sets. With a two-set deficit and the pressure released, Norrie slowly began to produce his best, most tenacious tennis.
His serve placement improved considerably and he dragged Federer out of the court with angled forehands. After Norrie saved two break points at 5-5, Federer wobbled, spraying three errors as he lost his serve and he was pushed into a fourth set.
After a turbulent fourth set with numerous breaks, Federer soon found himself fighting against Norrie’s momentum, down 3-4, 15-30 and staring at the possibility of a fifth set. But at the perfect moment, he rose to produce a spectacular running cross-court forehand winner. He held serve for 4-4 and then he made his charge, sealing the decisive break before finishing Norrie off.
Despite this year’s Championships marking the first time since 1999 that three British men reached the third round, none of the trio were able to progress further as attention was stolen by teenager Emma Raducanu.
There is no shame at all in losing to Federer on the grass of Centre Court and Norrie’s effort was faultless, but his inability to perform until he was down two sets and his odds were diminished was a clear disappointment.
Asked afterwards about how it feels to know that he has reached 69 major fourth-round berths, Federer smiled. “It is a nice stat to hear, it proves to me when I wake up it has happened. I feel stiff. I have played a lot of tennis. I have loved every minute, I hope I have more left. It is a pleasure playing right now. This one is special as I am almost 40, this is the last slam before I hit the big four-oh. It is all a bonus and it will be good to see how far I go.”
In the crowd nearby, a fan carried a sign that read “Federer is Forever” and hoisted it to the sky. The tendency to put Federer on such a pedestal often seems to ignore the significance of these final years of his career. Federer is very much mortal, which he knows more than anyone, and his mortality is what has made him so compelling to watch over recent seasons.
He has had numerous physical issues, produced performances that have left him deeply disappointed and he has been clear about his moments of doubt, but Federer continues to toil hard in the hope that he still has more to do in this sport. It is still not clear where he is heading, but he is doing all that he can.