By Ossian Shine
LONDON (Reuters) - As the green tarpaulin covers were pulled back from Wimbledon's grass courts on Monday morning, and straw-hatted stewards prepared to police the snaking queues, a growing number of informed observers were contemplating a July 4 fairytale.
Burly Californian Steve Johnson is the real deal, they said. Roger Federer is there for the taking; he's "undercooked", past his best. Johnson, on the other hand, has won eight straight grasscourt games, including his first title, in Nottingham.
This had all the makings of an Independence Day upset at the All England Club.
Oh, how soon we dismiss our champions.
Federer, a player so great and so rare he rewrites history books one way or another most times he steps on court these days, clearly pays no heed.
On a blustery Centre Court he conceded 10 games in dispatching the danger man 6-2 6-3 7-5 to reach his 14th Wimbledon quarter-final – a professional era record he now shares with Jimmy Connors.
Whatever some experts say, a clinical straight sets victory kept Federer on track to become the only man to win eight Wimbledon singles crowns.
So while Andy Murray-supporting Brits have been rubbing their hands with glee following Novak Djokovic’s shock third-round defeat, the biggest beneficiary of the Serb’s removal may be Federer, who is yet to lose a set at Wimbledon this year.
"I hope I can win Wimbledon one more time," Federer told reporters, a quizzical smile on his face, amused that anyone might for a nano-second think otherwise.
NO WASHED-UP CHAMP
For sure there remains a little rust on the Swiss maestro's forehand – more than a few were rifled long on Monday – but there can be few things on any sporting stage more elegant than the sight of Federer stretching high and sweeping a backhand down over the net, his wrist rolling to send the ball spinning and biting into the Wimbledon turf.
If pushed, I dare say Johnson would agree, once he absorbs the defeat, as fundamentally one-sided as the others Federer meted out in week one here.
Johnson should not take the result to heart, for Centre Court at Wimbledon is no Nottingham.
And Federer is no washed up champion.
True, this is the first time in 16 years that he arrives at Wimbledon without a title to his name so far this year. In this respect alone, Johnson had the edge over him.
But in every other regard this was a mismatch which would not have been permitted in a more physical sport.
"I'm happy about my game... I've been able to rise to the occasion and play a really good match," 34-year-old Federer said.
Next up is ninth seed Marin Cilic, the Croatian who memorably dismantled Federer on his way to the 2014 U.S. Open crown - to date his sole grand slam title.
Again, there seem to be no shortage of pundits ready to predict the end of the road for third-seeded Federer.
"I'm looking forward to a tough one here," he simply smiles. "Right now I am enjoying everything about Wimbledon."
Not quite everything.
While other players have visited West End shows, concerts and the nightlife London offers, Federer has been following the Euro 2016 soccer tournament, playing with his kids and, unsurprisingly, watching tennis.
"My friends, my family, everybody around me did all the Beyonce, Matilda, all the stuff I wanted to do... But right now I have other goals than doing that stuff."
(Reporting by Ossian Shine; Editing by Ken Ferris)