Some people speculated that a good, competitive match Wednesday would sharpen top-seeded Roger Federer for the Wimbledon semifinals.
Others fretted that such a match might wear him out, when he’d need that energy to win the tournament for a ninth time.
In the end, it was door No. 3 — a jaw-dropping defeat, a surprising Fed-Exit.
The so-called King of Grass was unceremoniously clipped, with 6-foot-8 South African Kevin Anderson coming back from the brink of defeat to win, 2-6, 6-7 (5), 7-5, 6-4, 13-11. The match lasted four hours, 14 minutes and left the packed-to-the-rafters crowd at Court 1 as wrung out as the participants.
“I think the toughest thing players face when going out playing somebody like Roger in this setting is giving yourself a chance,” said Anderson, who will play American John Isner in a semifinal Friday. “I feel like the times that I’ve played him before, or other guys sort of with his ranking and history, I haven’t really allowed myself to play.”
This time, Anderson gave himself a chance. And capitalized.
The least surprised person in the venue might have been Federer, even though Anderson had never won a set against him until Wednesday.
“There’s nothing that really shocked me because I’ve seen Kevin play many, many times in the past,” said Federer, who was 4-0 against the South African. “Even if the matches have been maybe sometimes one-sided, [and] I didn’t lose sets against him, you always know he can pick it up, and all of a sudden you won’t see breaks for some time.”
What the world won’t see is a Sunday rematch of Federer and Rafael Nadal, who 10 years ago played in a Wimbledon final widely considered the best match in the history of the sport.
In the other semifinal, Nadal — a winner over Juan Martin Del Potro in five sets — will play three-time Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic, who had the breeziest match of the day Wednesday with a four-set victory over Kei Nishikori.
At one point deep in the Federer-Anderson match, an exasperated fan shattered the silence with a pleading wail: “I need to watch some football!” Indeed, the start of England’s World Cup semifinal against Croatia was fast approaching. The crowd responded with a sympathetic laugh.
Few thought the quarterfinal would go this way, especially with Federer winning the first two sets to match his tournament record of 34 consecutive set victories. (He didn’t lose a single set in winning Wimbledon last year.) It was inconceivable that he would then drop three in a row, even against the world’s eighth-ranked player.
But Anderson, who was pushed to the brink of match point in the third set, held his ground and defied the odds. It was just the third time that Federer lost a Grand Slam match after taking a 2-0 lead, with the other two coming in 2011 at Wimbledon against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and the U.S. Open against Djokovic. Federer is now 266-3 in such matches.
“Especially with these long matches, saving your energy, especially emotional energy, is very important,” said Anderson, 32, who played collegiately at Illinois, lives in Delray Beach, Fla., and has applied for U.S. citizenship.
“I feel like this whole tournament has been a really — I’ve been in a very good place with that.”
Federer was asked if he felt disheartened after Anderson clawed his way out of an 0-2 hole to force a fifth set.
“No, I felt good actually,” said Federer, who turns 37 next month. “Sure, it’s disappointing losing the next two sets after winning the first two and having match points. I’ve been there before. I know what kind of energy I need to bring to the fifth. I was able to bring that.”
The gut punch came after the match, when the reality of the situation sunk in.
“Now, I feel horribly fatigued and just awful,” he said, even though he looked fresh enough to play another match on the spot. “It’s just terrible. But that’s how it goes, you know. Credit to him.”
While noting he can’t dwell on the victory too long, Anderson said: “I really hope it's an example of sticking to your dreams and keep believing in yourself.”
The way Federer handled himself with the media after the defeat, thoughtfully considering each question and reaching deep to provide insights, underscored why he’s among the most respected and revered athletes in any sport. He’s honest and introspective, both when he wins and after the rare defeat.
Federer, the only eight-time Wimbledon singles champion, said he’s reminded “that maybe the losses hurt more, that you don’t want to be on the loser’s side. That motivates me to do extremely well here because I don’t want to sit here and explain my loss. That’s the worst feeling you can have as a tennis player.
“But honestly, I love being around here. It’s a good vibe. We have a good time as a family. I have great memories from here. My heroes all won here. Every time I come back here, I try to be like them, so it’s nice to be here.”
Now, a Federer reality that no one in this soccer-crazed nation anticipated: He’s going home.