LONDON – Roger Federer thought Centre Court looked smashing, what with its new retractable roof at the ready, all white fabric and steel trusses.
The fans at Wimbledon thought Federer looked smashing, too, what with his new collar-up, military-style jacket and formfitting tuxedo vest, all white with gold trim.
As for Federer’s play Monday at the All England Club? Well, for a few minutes, that did not look quite so good. But only for a few minutes. After trailing by a break in the first set of his first match since winning the French Open to complete a career Grand Slam, Federer righted himself and beat Yen-hsun Lu of Taiwan 7-5, 6-3, 6-2 to take the first step toward a record-breaking 15th major championship overall.
“Solid performance,” Federer said. “It’s funny: I actually didn’t even think about it – I didn’t have a grass-court match yet this year. It’s something I completely forgot about.”
Day 1 at Wimbledon featured only one upset of any significance: 17th-seeded James Blake of the United States lost in straight sets to 50th-ranked Andreas Seppi of Italy. And even that wasn’t all that shocking, considering that Blake has now lost three Grand Slam matches in a row. Otherwise, No. 21 Feliciano Lopez was beaten by Karol Beck 10-8 in the fifth set, while two seeded women lost, No. 21 Patty Schnyder and No. 23 Canadian Aleksandra Wozniak.
The Blainville, Que., native who made the semifinals at Eastbourne last week, lost 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 to the 43rd-ranked Francesca Schiavone.
Fellow Canadian Frank Dancevic, a finalist at Eastbourne, also lost, 6-4, 7-6 (4), 6-3 to Belgian Steve Darcis.
Past Wimbledon champions Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova reached the second round, as did No. 4 Novak Djokovic, No. 7 Fernando Verdasco, No. 9 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and No. 13 Robin Soderling, the runner-up to Federer at Roland Garros this month.
That recent up-close look at Federer is still sharp in Soderling’s mind.
“He’s so complete. He knows every shot. Serves well, forehand, backhand well, volleys well, moves well,” Soderling said after eliminating Gilles Muller of Luxembourg 6-7 (4), 7-5, 6-1, 6-2. “You know, that’s why he’s No. 1. That’s why, to me, he’s the best player in history.”
Actually, Federer is No. 2 in the rankings and the Wimbledon seedings. That’s in part because the last time he played on grass, 50 weeks ago, Federer lost to Rafael Nadal in the 2008 Wimbledon final, a four-hour 48-minute affair that, thanks to rain delays, finished after 9 p.m. and in near-darkness.
Such days are forever consigned to history around these parts, although now that Wimbledon is equipped with a roof, of course, there was not a drop of rain Monday – sort of akin to when you remember to leave the house carrying an umbrella and clouds give way to sun.
Nadal managed to end Federer’s 40-match winning streak at Wimbledon and record 65-match run on grass and so the Spaniard, as reigning champion, would have been accorded the honour of playing the opening Centre Court match this year. Except that Nadal withdrew from the tournament Friday, citing sore knees, and for the first time since 1973, the prior year’s runner-up – Federer – got things started.
This was Federer’s sixth chance to be first to stride onto the most hallowed lawn in tennis; he won Wimbledon five times, from 2003-07.
“It’s a very privileged spot, Monday, 1 p.m.,” Federer said. “I know that Rafa deserves it, obviously, more than I do this year. But somebody had to do it, so I’m very happy that they chose me, of course. Yeah, gets your heart beating, that’s for sure.”
Federer won the first nine points on his serve, but he failed to convert four break points in the match’s fourth game, then dumped a backhand into the net to get broken and fall behind 3-2.
“I knew the danger today,” Federer said. “He’s beaten good players.”
Lu’s biggest moment probably was his victory over Andy Murray at the Beijing Olympics, but he couldn’t sustain his brief bit of strong play Monday. Federer broke right back, then took the opening set when Lu – who is ranked 65th and is 6-15 in Grand Slam matches – flubbed an easy volley, then missed a backhand.
Federer, meanwhile, really got going, finishing with 42 winners and only 10 unforced errors. He took time to check out the changes to an arena built in 1922: The new roof, when not in use, is bunched up in two halves atop both ends of the court, a white intrusion on all the green at Centre Court – the grass, of course, but also the seats, walls, scoreboards, overhangs, even the chair umpire’s stand.
“I guess the moment will come that I’ll play indoors here,” Federer said. “I saw the structure for the first time. … It looks good, too.”
He’s a fan of fashion – Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour is a pal – and Federer showed up for Monday’s appointment in a getup that he called “a little bit more modern look,” topped by a jacket replete with epaulettes, pockets on the sleeve and a golden zipper. When he removed it after the coin toss, revealing his vest, some spectators at this most genteel of sites whistled and catcalled.
The vest eventually came off, too, as did the long white trousers he wore for warmups. There were touches of gold everywhere, including the “RF” on the front of his jacket and the shading on the heels of his sneakers.
“I hope,” he said, “people like it.”
Williams, the 2002-03 champion and runner-up to her sister Venus a year ago, made her own fashion statement, wearing a trenchcoat onto Centre Court.
“I just thought it was going to rain,” Williams said after defeating 154th-ranked qualifier Neuza Silva of Portugal 6-1, 7-5. “I thought, ‘Well, if it rains, then I’ll still play.”‘
No wet weather arrived, though, and the first closing of Wimbledon’s roof will wait for another day.