LONDON – The 11,000-plus fans who filled Wimbledon’s No. 1 Court arrived expecting to see a king continue his regal reign. Nothing they saw for two sets, nine games and seven points took them away from that belief. But when it was over, the king had been deposed. In four hours and 14 minutes, defending champion Roger Federer had lost in the quarterfinals to eighth-seeded Kevin Anderson, 2-6, 6-7 (5), 7-5, 6-4, 13-11. The last set alone had taken 90 minutes.
When someone of Federer’s magnitude is involved, it’s hardly fitting to apply the notion that history is written by the winners. The losers have their say too.
“It’s just not one of my best days,” said Federer, “but they don’t happen very often either. It’s one of those average days you have to try to win the match, and I just couldn’t get it done today.”
Kevin Anderson’s match point against Roger Federer, at 12-11 in the fifth set:
Less than two hours in, Federer held a match point. Down two sets to love, Anderson served at 4-5, rapidly reaching 40-15, a second consecutive tiebreaker likely in the offing. But on the next point, a Federer forehand crosscourt return kissed the line for a winner. At 40-30, Anderson awkwardly fielded a Federer backhand down-the-line backhand pass. At deuce, Anderson meagerly poked a forehand into the net.
Down to his last chance, Anderson played superbly. Striking a 132-m.p.h. serve to Federer’s backhand, he elicited a short return. Anderson pounded a forehand approach deep to Federer’s backhand. Federer shanked the attempted pass. Said Anderson, “By that stage, I felt I was hitting the ball well.”
There had also come other opportunities for Federer throughout the protracted fifth set. Anderson served at 2-3, love-30, but escaped with a combo platter of a fine serve, sharp backhand, crisp forehand and, to close out the game, a 129-m.p.h. ace. At 3-4, deuce, a long Anderson backhand put Federer one point away from taking a 5-3 lead. But as it had throughout the match, the Anderson serve made the difference, a 128-m.p.h. service winner down the T. Anderson soon leveled for 4-all.
With Anderson serving at 5-6, Federer took the first two points. Once more, Anderson came through. At love-30, a 111 mph second serve winner; at 15-30, a set of forceful groundstrokes; at 30-all, a pair of concussive forehands, including a crosscourt laser that just landed inside the line.
“I’ve seen Kevin play very well off the baseline also against me in the past,” said Federer. “I wasn’t feeling particularly well off the baseline. I couldn’t really get the rallies going the way I wanted to, especially one-two punch wasn’t working at all today. I don’t know if it had something to do with the breeze, just a bad day from my side, except the first set. After that, I never really felt exactly 100 percent.”
Roger Federer’s press conference after his stunning loss:
Federer was holding serve so swiftly you’d think he was double-parked. At 6-7, he once again got up on Anderson, 15-30. But the Anderson serve was relentless; the South African escaped thanks to a 132-m.p.h. ace at 30-all and, at 40-30, a 125-m.p.h. service winner.
As the fifth set continued, two notions came to mind—one for the future, the other from the past. First, why not play a concluding tiebreaker? Surely the match was going to come down to two or three points anyway, so why not the ultra-tight closure of a tiebreaker?
History beckoned with memories of the 2009 Wimbledon singles final, when Federer had led Andy Roddick throughout the fifth set, Roddick at last succumbing, 16-14. With the crowd growing louder every time Federer had an opening, with Anderson’s fingers on the ledge, with the late afternoon sun breaking through just enough to cast the match in glittery green, the idea of yet another Federer epic win seemed a viable scenario.
But once Anderson had evened the decider at 7-all, he lost but three points in his final five service games. Instead, at 11-all, it was Federer who blinked—at 30-all, his only double-fault of the match. On the next point—break point—Federer lined a crosscourt forehand into the net.
With Anderson now serving for the biggest win of his career and the chance to reach his first Wimbledon semifinal, Federer struck a deep backhand return down the middle that triggered an Anderson error. Could he indeed fight back? Word came from Anderson: no. A wide ace evened the game. Two whopper forehands brought Anderson to match point. Up 40-15, Anderson followed the simple premise that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Boom, a 128-m.p.h. down the T. A Federer backhand floated long.
Kevin Anderson talks on Tennis Channel after his breakthrough Wimbledon win
Anderson’s turnaround was remarkable. Begin with the matchup, Federer having won all four of their prior matches, the most recent a 6-1, 6-1 victory in Cincinnati in 2015. As today’s match began, Anderson served first and played an exceptionally tight game, missing three forehands and then mishitting a backhand to hand Federer the break. In 26 minutes, Federer cruised through the first set, 6-2.
“The toughest thing players face when going out playing somebody like Roger in this setting is giving yourself a chance,” said Anderson. “I feel like the times that I’ve played him before, or other guys sort of with his ranking and history, I haven’t really allowed myself to play.”
This time Anderson played. The second set lasted twice as long. Down 0-2 in the tiebreaker, Federer rattled off five straight points, a serenade of movement, touch, power and precision. Even when Federer squandered a pair of set points on his serve at 6-3, he was able to close out the set with a blocked forehand return off a 127-m.p.h. Anderson serve and, in time, roll a sublime crosscourt forehand to go up two sets to love.
Management of emotion has always been tricky for Anderson. Early in his career, he would often seem distanced, competing as if he were watching someone else play his matches. More recently, as seen last year when he reached the US Open final, Anderson became more vocally expressive. Today, though, nary a peep, an overt decision Anderson made in the wake of a painful five-set loss to Diego Schwartzman in the fourth round of this year’s French Open.
“I think from an emotional standpoint, with my team, we’ve sort of evolved a little bit more,” said Anderson. “I feel like I’m able to harness some of that energy without being as outgoing with it. . . .Especially with these long matches, saving your energy, especially emotional energy, is very important.”
Daily Serve—what today’s marathon results mean going forward:
What’s never been tricky for Anderson is his fidelity to tennis. His work ethic is superb—including exceptional emphasis on his off-court training during Wimbledon this year. As my Tennis Channel colleague Martina Navratilova has frequently said, you can completely control your fitness, so why not take every step you can to be as fit—strength, stamina, flexibility—as possible?
All of those factors came in play for Anderson in this victory. Difficult as it is to enter the kingdom of Federer, Anderson refused to be intimidated by such large factors as Roger’s aura or the vociferous crowd. As the match wore on, Anderson’s energy and focus increased. The only thing more on target was his serve—67 percent of his first serves in, 81 service winners (including 28 aces) and success on 52 percent of his first serve points. Also notable: Over the last three sets, Anderson faced six break points, and erased them all.
“It motivates me to do extremely well here because I don’t want to sit here and explain my loss,” said Federer. “That’s the worst feeling you can have as a tennis player.”
For Anderson, of course, the opposite was the case. Still, given his past with Federer and the nervous way he’d started the match, perhaps Anderson too was surprised by what he’d accomplished. Certainly the fans and millions more were. But such is sports, one of the few realms in life where surprise poses no danger—just the joy of victory and the cruelty of defeat.
Strokes of Genius is a world-class documentary capturing the historic 13-year rivalry between tennis icons Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It is timed for release as the anticipation crests with Roger as returning champion, 10 years after their famed 2008 Wimbledon championship – an epic match so close and so reflective of their competitive balance that, in the end, the true winner was the sport itself.
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