Roger Federer has experienced so many different emotions over his 22-year Wimbledon career, unfettered joy and crushing despair alike, but as he stepped out to the baseline on Centre Court and served to stay in the match while trailing two sets and 0-5 against Hubert Hurkacz, he faced a new scenario altogether.
Across the 1,525 matches he has played as a professional on the ATP Federer had only once in the 21st century received a bagel set. That alone took the greatest clay‑court player of all time, Rafael Nadal, at the height of his powers in the 2008 French Open final. Yet there he was on Wednesday, fighting just for a simple game.
The Centre Court rose to greet the moment twice, offering him a long, warm ovation at the start of the game and again when he faced match point. Neither worked.
Federer’s loss is neither a calamity nor a shock. First, he was beaten by an emerging, underrated opponent in Hurkacz, whose name will be a footnote in many stories but who produced a resourceful all-round performance. He showed many of his qualities with a mixture of big serving, quality defence, deft touches at the net and even bold ball-striking when necessary. In the biggest match of his life to date he made only 12 unforced errors.
This year the 24‑year‑old defeated four top-20 players en route to winning the Miami Open and he entered Centre Court a day after beating the No 2 seed, Daniil Medvedev. While a veteran would have been physically compromised by competing on back-to-back days, his opponent, Hurkacz, said it was to his advantage. These are the supreme athletes Federer is competing against so late in his career.
On the other side of the net Federer was a sad sight. He struggled badly with his forehand, his radar broken. In such disruptive, windy conditions his footwork needed to be precise yet it was at times so poor that he would shadow the correct movements between points.
As the match wore on, his shank and forehand mistakes only increased. When he was in desperate need of some luck, fate laughed at him as he slipped while he attempted to put away an easy volley at 2-3 in the tiebreak, losing the point.
Despite the severity of his defeat, Federer still leaves after a strong week given all the context of his presence. Two knee surgeries are extremely difficult to bounce back from quickly, let alone a month shy of his 40th birthday and after so many years of wear and tear. Just over three weeks ago he was struggling not only with his game but also with his confidence and attitude as he was snuffed out early in Halle.
Federer had started the tournament in similarly indifferent form, nearly being at risk of a first-round defeat to a spirited Adrian Mannarino before the Frenchman was forced to retire. He recovered from that first round, breezing through three matches and taking out two seeded players in Cameron Norrie and Lorenzo Sonego, and reaching the quarter-finals was impressive and admirable in itself.
How long will that be enough? It is hard to imagine that even he knows now, but Federer is still only five tournaments into his return after a 14-month injury lay‑off. Despite how he exploded back into the tour after his previous knee surgery, winning the 2017 Australian Open in his first official tournament back, recovering form after injury often takes time.
With more time on the court there is still room for him to improve and to gain rhythm. But time is also, of course, his greatest foe. It will be fascinating to see how, and for how long, Federer tries.