WIMBLEDON — Walking the Wimbledon grounds Sunday, wearing a stylish white jacket with gold trim, his collar turned up for protection from a biting wind, the tournament’s six-time champion looked like the same old Roger Federer.
True, there have been signs of slippage this month. Federer lost at the French Open in the quarter-finals, his earliest Grand Slam exit in six years. Then he dropped to No. 2 in the rankings behind nemesis Rafael Nadal. Then, at a Wimbledon warm-up event, came Federer’s second grass-court defeat since 2003, extending his drought of nearly five months without a title.
But the All England Club tends to bring out the best in Federer, which is awfully good. He has reached a record seven consecutive Wimbledon finals, losing only one of them — to Nadal in 2008. Last year Federer regained the title, beating Andy Roddick 16-14 in the fifth set of a final that ranked with the sport’s greatest matches.
And so when Federer steps onto an immaculate Centre Court lawn for his opening-round match today against Alejandro Falla of Colombia, he’ll again be the man to beat. Tournament organizers acknowledged as much by giving Federer the top seeding even though he’s ranked second.
He’ll try to join Pete Sampras and 19th-century champion Willie Renshaw as the only men to win the singles title seven times.
“Obviously my game’s made for grass,” Federer said. “I definitely think every time I play, I’ll have a chance to win here, there’s no doubt. We all know how hard it is to win Grand Slam titles. But I think the experience I have on this surface can pull me through many matches maybe I would be struggling with.”
Also made for grass are women’s favourites Serena and Venus Williams, who are seeded 1-2 and have combined to win eight of the past 10 Wimbledon championships. Serena, who earned her third title by beating her sister in last year’s final, has tweaked her tournament preparation in anticipation of a visit Thursday to Wimbledon by Queen Elizabeth II.
“I’ve been working on my curtsy,” Serena said. “It’s a little extreme, so I’m going to have to tone it down. I was practising it this morning.”
The queen hasn’t been to Wimbledon since 1977. Also returning after absences will be Grand Slam champions Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters, each seeking her first Wimbledon title. Henin hasn’t played at Wimbledon since 2007, Clijsters since 2006.
And then there’s Nadal, who withdrew shortly before last year’s tournament because of knee tendinitis. A match Tuesday against wild card Kei Nishikori of Japan will be Nadal’s first at Wimbledon since he beat Federer in their memorable 2008 final.
Nadal is coming off his fifth French Open title and an unbeaten but gruelling clay-court season. He celebrated with a brief break a week ago back home in Mallorca.
“I went for a party with the friends,” the Spaniard said. “I played golf. I go to the beach. So I had a perfect Sunday. I need it.”
Along with a recharged Nadal, the biggest threats to Federer include Roddick, Brit Andy Murray and No. 3-seeded Novak Djokovic. In short, it’s a familiar cast of contenders.
“You’re still going to get the same five or six names,” Roddick said. “Roger’s always a favourite when he comes here. Rafa’s in form, he’s playing well. Murray will have the home court. I could have given you the same answer last year as I’m giving you right now.”
Federer remains at the top of the list despite mixed results this year. It started well: He won the Australian Open in January to increase his record total of Grand Slam championships to 16.
He hasn’t won a tournament since.
“In Australia I really played some of the best tennis of my life,” he said. “I’ve been disappointed I wasn’t able to carry on. I know my game, my body and everything so well that I really expected to take off and just go on a tear.”
A lung infection that forced him to withdraw from a tournament in February interrupted his momentum. He showed flashes of his best form at the French Open, where he was defending champion for the first time, but lost to Robin Soderling.
Federer lost again a week ago to Lleyton Hewitt in the final at Halle, Germany — his second defeat in 78 grass-court matches since 2003. But he said he played well in both tournaments, feels fit and likes his chances of joining Sampras and Renshaw as a seven-time Wimbledon champ.
As a fan of Switzerland’s World Cup team, Federer does face one potential distraction in the first round. He takes the court at 1 p.m. local time, and the Swiss play Chile in South Africa two hours later.
“You think I’ll just like leave the court at 3? That’s not going to happen,” Federer said with a smile. “Maybe I can install a little screen on Centre Court.”
Actually, if he’s still the same old Federer, he’ll be off the court and into the second round before the World Cup game begins.