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 undoubtedly arrived in London with similar intentions this year but he has some elementary concerns for the time being. After two knee operations and more than a year out of competition, he is still trying to rediscover his form 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 with a knee injury following a bad slip, the score was 6-4, 6-7(3), 3-6, 6-2 ret.
“It’s awful,” said Federer in his on-court interview. “It shows that one shot can change the outcome of a match, a season, a career. I wish him all the best and I hope he recovers quickly so I can see him back on the courts because he could have won the match at the end. I definitely got a bit lucky but who cares about that? I wish him all the best.”
Across the net from Federer stood one of the unique games on the tour. Mannarino is a diminutive lefty with some of the most compact, flat groundstrokes in the men’s game. Early on Federer looked comfortable but as the second set wore on, he became increasingly tentative with his forehand as Mannarino cut down on his unforced errors. It culminated in an extremely low-quality tiebreak from Federer, in which he made four unforced forehand errors.
Throughout the third set, Mannarino continued to play intelligently, forcing Federer to move into his forehand side and producing some excellent angled backhands as the Swiss’s form continued to drop. He fell down 0-2 after losing his serve with a meek service game: four consecutive groundstroke errors on routine shots early in each point. After fighting hard to regain the break, he handed it back with another series of unforced errors. Mannarino, with his sharp direction changes and sweet backhand, calmly served out the set.
Federer started the fourth set down a break point, which he saved with a service winner before holding serve. He used the momentum well, producing by far his cleanest stretch of tennis since the first set as he established a 4-1 lead and seemed en route to a fifth set. But at 4-2 and 15-15 Mannarino slipped badly while retrieving a ball and he hurt his knee. And that was it. Although he tried to continue, he could not serve or move, leaving the Frenchman with no choice but to retire.
Mannarino’s slip had been preceded by Novak Djokovic falling numerous times in Monday’s opening match on Centre Court and it was followed by Serena Williams’ shock retirement in the next match after she also slipped, highlighting a particularly hazardous Wimbledon on the grass.
Still early in his comeback, Federer had arrived at Wimbledon having won consecutive matches only once this year, compiling a 5-3 record coming into the event. Although returning from a long lay-off and multiple knee surgeries is extremely challenging, whether 39 or 19, Federer has taken some of those losses uncharacteristically hard.