Roger Federer, the oldest man left in the tournament yet seemingly ageless, is creaking into the quarter-finals of Wimbledon with a suspect back, as much survivor as predator. Today he will rest the injury that has a little-chronicled history stretching back a couple of years but which surfaced in the first of four sets against Xavier Malisse , threatening to wreck his quest for a seventh title.
However, in keeping with Federer's sunny disposition and sometimes overpowering self-confidence, after a spot of treatment he not only played on without complaint towards victory in two hours and 11 minutes but promised to emerge "100%" fit for his match against the 30-year-old Russian, Mikhail Youhzny. The world No 3 will, in all probability, beat the 33rd seed then wait for the field to come at him.
"Honestly I'm not too worried," said Federer after winning 7-6, 6-1, 4-6, 6-3. "I've had bad backs over the years. They go as quick as they come. But of course I have to keep an eye on it. Two good nights' sleeps and I'll be 100% on Wednesday. I'm pretty convinced —; otherwise I wouldn't have been able to pull out the match the way I did today."
The man is blessed. Not only did whoever put him together give him the trip-wired reflexes of a panther and the tennis equivalent of Einstein's brain; he has physical resilience that is the envy of the locker room. Nobody in tennis defies the demands of the sport with such elegance and ease. Only a fool would bet against him reaching the semi-finals. After that? It is an altogether different story.
His trail to the late stages of a tournament that once was his by right has been a mix of stroll and struggle: the world No43 Albert Ramos took three games off him and Fabio Fognini (68) stole a further six before his French friend Julien Benneteau, ranked 32, had the impertinence to win the first two sets and take him to the edge of his resources in the third round.
All was set fair for a fourth-round return to gilded progress, against another long-time pal, the 31-year-old Belgian Malisse, a former semi-finalist here whose ranking of 75 – and a belly exposed by the gusts of wind that swirled around Centre Court – fairly reflected where he stands in the game now.
Federer, who turns 31 next month, looked uncharacteristically vulnerable in the light drizzle that teased Wimbledon all day at the start of the second week. "I thought I was in big trouble at 6-5 [in the first set], got a bity lucky, the rain delay helped. It was spitting for almost the entire match. We could have come off at any minute, the entire match."
In defiance of all forecasts a pocket of clean air kept the skies relatively dry above the place Federer regards as a personal fiefdom. When he went off for treatment, the tournament held its breath. Losing Rafa Nadal was unfortunate. Losing Federer would have been, well, jolly rotten.
Malisse broke, then dropped serve and folded in the tie-break. Letting the Swiss off the hook was like David Haye getting a free swing at Vitali Klitschko and going through the ropes. Just after 2pm they went off for 45 minutes, as the drizzle grew. When they resumed Federer moved with noticeably increased comfort.
Malisse was in the last 16 for the second year in a row after easy wins over Marinko Matosevic and the housewive's friend, Gilles Simon, followed by a gruelling five-setter to put out the 17th seed, Fernando Verdasco. But all that hard work looked to be disappearing down the drains when he horribly shanked a forehand to drop serve in the third game of the second set.
Presents do not come more obviously gift-wrapped. Federer accepted. In keeping with the perversity of this narrative almost from day one, there was a quick rewrite in chapter three as his flow ebbed. Malisse, whose sole win over Federer in 10 matches was when they first met, 13 years ago on clay in the Davis Cup, took the set and allowed himself to dream about book-ending that cv with the biggest win of his career.
But Malisse's serve deserted him and Federer broke at the start of the fourth, keeping his game together well enough. It was tougher than it looked.
Novak Djokovic, the defending champion, was impressive in storming into the quarter-finals for the fourth straight year with a 6-3, 6-1, 6-3 demolition of his compatriot Viktor Troicki. The world No1 needed just 90 minutes for victory and with every match he is looking in more and more ominous form as he tries to win the title for the second time.
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