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Federer begins his campaign in style

Nirmal Shekar

Former champion Lleyton Hewitt prevails over Robin Haase in five sets

London: It might be wiser — and far healthier for both your bank account and your reputation for lawn tennis punditry — if you were to bet on a rain-free Wimbledon this year than on a certain classy Swiss gentleman — a man who has guarded the men’s singles silverware in his possession with the same sort of zeal that the legendary bankers in his country are known to display with regard to protecting their customers’ money as well as identity — parting with the Challenge Cup in a hurry.

For, on a gorgeous opening day of the 122nd championships on the lawns of the All England Lawn Tennis Club, on Monday, any signs of vulnerability in Roger Federer’s game might have been spotted only by someone who chooses to function in the Harry Potter world rather than in the real one.

60th win

The great man’s 60th straight victory on grass, and the first in his quest for a record sixth Wimbledon title in a row, came against the old Slovakian warhorse — and Federer’s good friend and practice partner from his early days in the game — Dominik Hrbaty and the 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 success required the champion’s presence on the centre court for a mere 79 minutes.

At no time in the past five years has the Swiss maestro had to fend off so many questions concerning his form and championship mettle as he has had to in recent months.

And, all this after making the semifinals of the Australian Open and then his third straight final at the French Open.

That the man who is riding one of the most astonishing winning streaks in sport — unbeaten in six years on grass — should be thought vulnerable on his favourite surface is at once an indication of how quickly things can change in sport and how easily people can forget the past.

“Bradman fails,” read a heading in an English newspaper many decades ago, a day after the greatest batsman to have walked the face of the earth made a half-century in a first class match. Such are the yardsticks by which ultimate greatness is measured. On the one hand, this might appear at once cruel and ridiculous; on the other, it is nothing but an acknowledgement of the fact that failure is measured differently in the case of a handful of men and women who are known for stratospheric levels of achievement.

As Federer himself pointed out in Melbourne last January, he — as did the Don and a few other athletes — had “created a monster.”

It is a dinosaur with a reputation for invincibility everywhere but on clay. And it is this piece of unsustainable myth that has been his nemesis during a half-season when everything that could go wrong did go wrong for the World champion.

“I haven’t been reading and I haven’t been listening to what has been said. So, of course, I haven’t been affected either,” said the top seed who did not face a single breakpoint on serve against Hrbaty.

More than a week ago, Federer won the Halle tournament without dropping serve and, on Monday, although Hrbaty improved after a tremulous start, the Slovakian just couldn’t make any sort of impression .

Nervous

Federer admitted to being a touch nervous “two minutes before we went in” but he reeled off 12 points in a row for a 3-0 lead in five minutes.

The toothy Slovakian recovered but Federer did as he pleased. For, even the marvels of modern technology up in the skies don’t switch to auto pilot quite as safely and surely as does the Swiss master on a grass court.

About the only time parity was achieved was when the 30-year-old Slovakian, who underwent surgery for removal of a bone spur late last year and made it to the main draw here only on the strength of his protected ranking of 70, surprised his superstar friend by sitting next to him during a changeover.

“He asked if he could sit next to me. I said, ‘sure, no problem.’ We go way back,” said Federer. “He said it could be his last Wimbledon and so it was a bit emotional.”

Djokovic moves up

Later in the day, Federer’s potential semifinal opponent, Novak Djokovic, beat the German left hander Michael Berrer 7-5, 2-6, 6-3, 6-0 to get the job done well ahead of the sport’s perennial marathon man, Lleyton Hewitt. The Aussie, the last man to get his hands on the men’s singles trophy before the remarkable Federer era began, displayed typical in-the-trenches resolve to fight his way through 6-7(4), 6-3, 6-3, 6-7(1), 6-2 against Robin Haase of the Netherlands.

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