Wimbledon: Grand Slam tennis returns to England’s grass

WIMBLEDON, England — Roger Federer recalls feeling “just shocked, more than anything.”

Chris Evert found the news “devastating.”

The tennis world was shaken when the All England Club announced on April 1, 2020, that Wimbledon would be canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic – the first time since World War II it was called off for any reason.

The oldest Grand Slam tennis tournament ends a two-year absence on Monday, with 50% capacity attendance at the outset and a full Centre Court of 15,000 allowed for the singles finals on July 10-11, the latest signals things are moving closer to normal.

“It’s going to be an incredible event,” said American John Isner, a 2018 semifinalist at Wimbledon and winner of the longest match in the sport’s history there in 2010. “You know, a lot of people say it’s the Mecca of our sport, it’s our Augusta National. … It’s going to be great to have it back. I think the fans all over the world are going to be eager to watch it.”

If so, they will have plenty of storylines to follow on the grass courts.

Defending champion Novak Djokovic tries to pull even with Rafael Nadal (who won’t be there) and Federer (who will, in his last Slam before turning 40 on Aug. 8) at 20 major championships, the most for a man. Djokovic also hopes to add to his 2021 titles at the Australian Open and French Open to extend his bid for the first calendar-year Grand Slam by a man since 1969.

Serena Williams, at age 39, seeks her 24th major singles trophy to equal the all-time mark after losing in the 2018 and 2019 Wimbledon finals. Coco Gauff, now 17, returns to the site of her big breakthrough at 15. Could there be yet another new Slam champion?

What matters most to many is simply that The Championships – as it’s known to locals – will be played after being the only Grand Slam site that remained silent during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“In my mind – and I think in a lot of players’ minds – it’s the biggest tournament in the world, and the most prestigious. It was a bitter disappointment to everybody. And it was historical,” said Evert, who won three of her 18 major singles trophies at Wimbledon. “It made you realize how bad the world was and how bad the pandemic really was.”

The French Open shifted from May-June to September-October in 2020, then was played again this year, delayed just one week. That shift left just two weeks, instead of three, between the clay of Paris and the grass of London, which could be an advantage to those most at ease on the lawns of Wimbledon, such as eight-time champion Federer or seven-time champ Williams.

“Probably, yes, for those who know how to play on grass and don’t need much time for the preparation on it, it could probably be better,” said Petra Kvitova, the Czech left-hander who won Wimbledon in 2011 and 2014.

The U.S. Open was played in August-September 2020, albeit without fans, and the Australian Open was delayed by three weeks in 2021.

But the All England Club, unlike groups running other majors, had cancellation insurance that paid 180 million pounds ($250 million), according to chairman Ian Hewitt.

“Everything happened very quickly. … We were all not sure, anymore, what was going on,” said Federer, who missed most of 2020 after two operations on his right knee. “I remember being on (ATP) Council calls and trying to understand the magnitude and (asking), ‘When is the clay going to start?’ And then it literally went, within a couple of weeks, Wimbledon was canceled.”

There are changes this time – and on the horizon.

The singles champions’ checks are reduced more than 25% to about $2.4 million, although the overall cut in prize money is closer to 5%.

There will be fewer fans than usual for most of the two weeks – they’ll need to prove they’ve been vaccinated, tested negative for COVID-19 or had the illness within the preceding six months – and while the customary Middle Sunday without competition remains in effect, that will change in 2022, when the full fortnight will see matches.

Instead of renting private homes in Wimbledon Village, as some players usually do, the athletes and their entourages must stay at a designated hotel in London as part of what the tournament is calling a “minimized risk environment,” with coronavirus testing and a “track-and-trace program.”

“Obviously it’s not going to be normal. We’re not going to be staying at home. It’s going to be quite different,” said Johanna Konta, a British player who is a three-time Slam semifinalist, including at Wimbledon in 2017. “But it’s still grass. It’s still home. It’s still a home crowd. It’s still home comforts, in that sense, so I think it will just be exciting.”

MUCH AT STAKE FOR DJOKOVIC

Djokovic is well aware, of course, of all that is in the offing over the next fortnight and, should that go well, what else would be on the horizon for him in the weeks and months that will follow.

Win his next seven matches at Wimbledon, starting Monday with the traditional honor given to the defending men’s champion of opening the Centre Court proceedings on Day 1, and Djokovic will own three consecutive titles at the All England Club.

Add those to the other three he’s won on the grass there to make six in all, and to the record nine trophies he owns from the hard courts at the Australian Open, and to the three from the hard courts at the U.S. Open, and to the two from the clay courts at the French Open – try listing all of that without pausing to take a breath – and his total Grand Slam collection would reach 20.

That would tie the men’s mark first reached by Federer in 2018, then equaled last year by Nadal.

As it is, the top-ranked Djokovic has won seven of the past 12 Slams, the most ever for a man after turning 30.

Heady stuff, yes. But there’s more.

“The biggest challenge and the biggest task is always how to be present and how to stay in the moment regardless of the possibilities, the hypotheticals, and various options that are out there,” Djokovic said Saturday during a pre-tournament video conference with reporters. “There is always something on the line, I feel like, for me – probably Roger and Rafa, as well – when it comes to the tennis history in the last couple of years. We’ve been very successful, particularly in Slams.”

So let’s trace what sort of tennis history is potentially on the line.

If the 34-year-old from Serbia does win Wimbledon in two weeks’ time – FanDuel Sportsbook lists him as the men’s favorite, as does pretty much any entity or any person paying any attention to tennis – that would make him 3 for 3 at the majors in 2021; he triumphed at Melbourne Park in February, then Roland Garros two weeks ago.

The French Open, where he dethroned 13-time champ Nadal in the semifinals, then came from two sets down to edge Stefanos Tsitsipas in five in the final, “took a lot out of me, I think, mentally and physically and emotionally,” Djokovic said, then spread his arms wide for emphasis as he added: “It also granted me with an incredible amount of positive energy and confidence that created a wave that I’m trying to ride, so to say.”

If he can indeed carry that momentum through Wimbledon, a title would then put him three-fourths of the way to a true, calendar-year Grand Slam, a most-of-the-way-there-but-still-work-to-do achievement which in and of itself would be noteworthy because no man has been the champion at even the first three major tournaments of a season since Rod Laver went on to win all four in 1969.

Djokovic is doing it by pairing tremendous returning and defending with unparalleled mental strength.

“I admire his day-in, day-out relentless commitment to the sport,” said Jack Draper, the 19-year-old wild-card entry from England who is ranked 250th and will make his main-draw Grand Slam debut against Djokovic. “As a pro, I can appreciate that. It’s one of the toughest things to do. But I think he just gets that right. Obviously, his tennis capability is humongous, so definitely going to be a tough challenge on Monday for me.”

Also looming out there for the moment, and discussed as a possibility in Paris both by Djokovic and one of his coaches, Marian Vajda, is a Golden Slam, which would entail winning the four majors plus a gold medal at the Summer Olympics, which start in Tokyo on July 23, less than two weeks after Wimbledon concludes.

As if that weren’t all enough to contemplate, Djokovic is a busy guy without a racket in his hands.

He’s a husband and a father and has joined with Canadian pro Vasek Pospisil to form the Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA), a group they hope will be able to represent the interests of their sport’s athletes, who do not have any sort of union.

“Once I’m on the court, I try to lock in and I try to exclude all the distractions. I feel like, over the years, I managed to develop the mechanism that allows me to do that,” Djokovic said. “Everyone has their own special ways how to center themselves, how to focus themselves, really direct, so to say, the energy in what matters the most, which is the present moment.”

Djokovic and eight-time titlist Federer were placed on opposite halves of the Wimbledon bracket in Friday’s draw, meaning they only could meet in the final – which would be a rematch of their epic 2019 title showdown, when Djokovic edged Federer in a fifth-set tiebreaker after saving two championship points.

Federer is coming off a pair of operations to his right knee last year and has played only eight matches in the past 16 months.

No. 5 Dominic Thiem, the 2020 U.S. Open champ, joins two-time Wimbledon champ Nadal as top-five men missing the tournament. Nadal said his body needs to rest and recover following the French Open and Thiem recently injured his right wrist.

The possible men’s quarterfinals: Djokovic vs No. 5 Andrey Rublev, No. 3 Stefanos Tsitsipas vs. No. 8 Roberto Bautista Agut, No. 2 Daniil Medvedev vs. No. 6 Federer, and No. 4 Alexander Zverev vs. No. 7 Matteo Berrettini.

Noteworthy first-round men’s matchups include two-time champion Andy Murray against No. 24 seed Nikoloz Basilashvili; and No. 21 Ugo Humbert against Nick Kyrgios.

SERENA CHASING NO. 24

While Djokovic pursues Slam No. 20, Serena Williams will once again take a shot at No. 24, which would tie her with Margaret Court for the most major singles titles in tennis history. As it is, Williams’ 23 – including seven at the All England Club – are the most in the Open era, which began in 1968 when professionals were allowed to compete at the majors.

The reigning women’s champion, third-ranked Simona Halep, pulled out of the field just before the draw began, citing a torn left calf that also forced her to sit out the French Open. That means two of the top three players in the WTA rankings are missing from the field; No. 2 Naomi Osaka withdrew last week.

With two potential hurdles removed, Williams, seeded No. 6, will open against 100th-ranked Aliaksandra Sasnovich, who reached Wimbledon’s fourth round in 2018. The 39-year-old American could meet No. 25 Angelique Kerber – who beat Williams in the 2018 final – in the third round, and No. 20 Coco Gauff – a 17-year-old American who beat Williams’ older sister, Venus, at the All England Club in 2019 – in the fourth.

If Williams gets to the quarterfinals, her opponent could be No. 3 Elina Svitolina, who lost to Halep in the semifinals two years ago. Other potential women’s quarterfinals, based on seedings: No. 1 Ash Barty vs. No. 5 Bianca Andreescu, No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka vs. No. 7 Iga Swiatek, and No. 4 Sofia Kenin vs. No. 8 Karolina Pliskova.

Women’s first-rounders of particular interest include Barty against Carla Suárez Navarro, a 32-year-old Spaniard who recently returned to competition after being treated for cancer; French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova against 18-year-old Clara Tauson; and two-time Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova against 2017 U.S. Open champ Sloane Stephens.

FEDERER UNSURE ABOUT OLYMPICS

Federer is still not sure whether he will compete at the Tokyo Olympics, saying Saturday that he and his team plan to “reassess the situation after Wimbledon.”

Speaking to reporters in a video conference, Federer said that how things go over the coming fortnight will affect his plans for the next couple of months.

“Obviously, if I play really good here or really bad, I think it has an impact on how everything might look for the summer,” he said. “Still, my feeling is I would like to go to the Olympics. I would like to play as many tournaments as possible. But I think we decided now let’s just get through Wimbledon, sit down as a team, and then decide where we go from there.”

Wimbledon ends July 11. The Tokyo Games – which were postponed a year because of the coronavirus pandemic – are scheduled to open on July 23.

Federer has won two Olympic medals for Switzerland: a silver in singles at the 2012 London Games, which held the tennis competition at the All England Club, and a gold in doubles with Stan Wawrinka at the 2008 Beijing Games. Federer sat out the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics because of a left knee injury.

Federer said his 40th birthday approaching changes the calculus when it comes to figuring out a schedule, too.

“In previous years, it was definitely easier,” Federer said. “At the moment, things are not as simple as in the past. With age, you have to be more selective. You can’t play it all.”

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Naomi Osaka tops Jennifer Brady at Australian Open for 4th Grand Slam title

  • Naomi Osaka holds the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup aloft after defeating Jennifer Brady, 6-4, 6-3, in the women’s singles final at the Australian Open on Saturday (late Friday night PST) in Melbourne, Australia. (AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

  • Japan’s Naomi Osaka prepares to serve to United States’ Jennifer Brady during the women’s singles final at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.(AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

  • Japan’s Naomi Osaka serves to United States’ Jennifer Brady during the women’s singles final at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.(AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

  • United States’ Jennifer Brady hits a return to Japan’s Naomi Osaka during the women’s singles final at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.(AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

  • Japan’s Naomi Osaka hits a forehand return to United States’ Jennifer Brady during the women’s singles final at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.(AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

  • United States’ Jennifer Brady hits a forehand return to Japan’s Naomi Osaka during the women’s singles final at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.(AP Photo/Hamish Blair)

  • Japan’s Naomi Osaka hits a backhand return to United States’ Jennifer Brady during the women’s singles final at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.(AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

  • United States’ Jennifer Brady hits a forehand return to Japan’s Naomi Osaka during the women’s singles final at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.(AP Photo/Hamish Blair)

  • United States’ Jennifer Brady reacts after losing a point to Japan’s Naomi Osaka during the women’s singles final at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.(AP Photo/Hamish Blair)

  • Japan’s Naomi Osaka serves to United States’ Jennifer Brady during the women’s singles final at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.(AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

  • Japan’s Naomi Osaka reacts during her match against United States’ Jennifer Brady during the women’s singles final at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.(AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

  • United States’ Jennifer Brady serves to Japan’s Naomi Osaka during the women’s singles final at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.(AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

  • United States’ Jennifer Brady serves to Japan’s Naomi Osaka during the women’s singles final at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.(AP Photo/Hamish Blair)

  • Japan’s Naomi Osaka hits a backhand return to United States’ Jennifer Brady during the women’s singles final at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.(AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

  • United States’ Jennifer Brady hits a backhand return to Japan’s Naomi Osaka during the women’s singles final at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.(AP Photo/Mark Dadswell)

  • Japan’s Naomi Osaka serves to United States’ Jennifer Brady during the women’s singles final at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.(AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

  • United States’ Jennifer Brady reacts after losing a point to Japan’s Naomi Osaka during the women’s singles final at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.(AP Photo/Hamish Blair)

  • Japan’s Naomi Osaka celebrates after defeating United States’ Jennifer Brady in the women’s singles final at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021(AP Photo/Hamish Blair)

  • Japan’s Naomi Osaka celebrates after defeating United States’ Jennifer Brady in the women’s singles final at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021(AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

  • Japan’s Naomi Osaka celebrates after defeating United States’ Jennifer Brady during the women’s singles final at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.(AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

  • Naomi Osaka celebrates after defeating Jennifer Brady in the women’s singles final at the Australian Open on Saturday (late Friday night PST) in Melbourne, Australia. (AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

  • Japan’s Naomi Osaka celebrates after defeating United States’ Jennifer Brady in the women’s singles final at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.(AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

  • Japan’s Naomi Osaka, right, holds the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup defeating United States Jennifer Brady, left, in the women’s singles finalat the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.(AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

  • Japan’s Naomi Osaka kisses the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup after defeating United States Jennifer Brady in the women’s singles final at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.(AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

  • Japan’s Naomi Osaka holds the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup after defeating United States Jennifer Brady in the women’s singles final at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.(AP Photo/Hamish Blair)

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MELBOURNE, Australia — The trouble for Naomi Osaka at Grand Slam tournaments comes in Week 1. Get beyond that at the hard-court majors, though, and start preparing to etch her name on the trophy.

Osaka won her fourth title in her past eight appearances at a Slam, emerging from what initially was a tight Australian Open final and pulling away by grabbing six consecutive games to beat Jennifer Brady, 6-4, 6-3, on Saturday (late Friday night PST).

With strong serving that produced six aces, Osaka improved to 4-0 in major finals, the first woman to start her career that way since Monica Seles did it 30 years ago. For Osaka, that is part of a 12-0 record so far in the quarterfinals and beyond at the majors.

The 2020 AP Female Athlete of the Year is also on a 21-match winning streak that dates to last season. That includes a championship at last year’s U.S. Open. She also won the U.S. Open in 2018, and the Australian Open in 2019.

The 23-year-old Osaka was born in Japan and moved to the United States with her family when she was 3.

Brady is a 25-year-old former UCLA standout who was playing in her first Grand Slam final. She had to go through a hard quarantine for 15 days when she arrived in Australia in January because someone on her flight tested positive for COVID-19 when they arrived.

This was a big step up in competition during this tournament for Brady, who had not faced anyone ranked in the Top 25 nor anyone who previously appeared in so much as one Grand Slam semifinal.

During the pre-match coin toss, the silver women’s trophy stood on a clear, plastic pedestal not far from Osaka on her side of the net. After beating Serena Williams in the semifinals, Osaka had made her intentions clear: “I have this mentality that people don’t remember the runners-up. You might, but the winner’s name is the one that’s engraved.”

And she keeps making sure that name is hers.

It was cooler than it’s been in Melbourne recently, with the temperature down below 70 degrees and a breeze that made serve tosses difficult for both players, who would catch the ball instead of hit it and say, “Sorry!”

The stadium was allowed to be at half capacity – about 7,500 fans – after spectators were barred entirely earlier in the tournament for five days during a COVID-19 lockdown.

In the men’s final Sunday (7:30 p.m. local time, 12:30 a.m., late Saturday night PST), top-seeded Novak Djokovic will be seeking his ninth Australian Open championship and 18th Grand Slam trophy overall. He faces No. 4 seed Daniil Medvedev, who carries a 20-match winning streak into his second major final.

Only two active women own more Slam titles than Osaka: Williams, with 23, and her sister, Venus, with seven.

The next task for Osaka is improving on clay and grass: She’s never been past the third round at the French Open or Wimbledon.

Brady had to go through a hard quarantine for 15 days when she arrived in Australia in January because someone on her flight tested positive for COVID-19 when they arrived.

On Saturday, the final was locked at 4-all, when Brady used an on-the-run lob winner that she punctuated by waving her arms to request more noise from the crowd. That earned a break point – convert that, and she would serve for the opening set.

But Osaka erased the chance with a cross-court forehand winner, and two errors by Brady made it 5-4.

Osaka then broke to grab the set, helped by Brady’s double-fault and a netted forehand on a short ball to end it.

That was part of the six-game run that put Osaka ahead 4-0 in the second and she was on her way.

More to come on this story.

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Roger Federer holds off Frances Tiafoe, 19, in 5 sets to advance at U.S. Open

  • Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, reacts after breaking Roger Federer, of Switzerland, during a first-round match of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. Federer won the match. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

    Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, reacts after breaking Roger Federer, of Switzerland, during a first-round match of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. Federer won the match. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Roger Federer, of Switzerland, returns a shot to Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, during the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

    Roger Federer, of Switzerland, returns a shot to Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, during the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Roger Federer, of Switzerland, returns a shot to Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, during U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

    Roger Federer, of Switzerland, returns a shot to Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, during U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, returns a shot to Roger Federer, of Switzerland, during the first round of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

    Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, returns a shot to Roger Federer, of Switzerland, during the first round of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Roger Federer, of Switzerland, returns a shot to Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, during the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

    Roger Federer, of Switzerland, returns a shot to Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, during the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, returns to Roger Federer, of Switzerland, during the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

    Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, returns to Roger Federer, of Switzerland, during the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Roger Federer, of Switzerland, stretches to return a shot to Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, during the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

    Roger Federer, of Switzerland, stretches to return a shot to Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, during the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Roger Federer, right, of Switzerland, and Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, shake hands after Federer won their match at the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

    Roger Federer, right, of Switzerland, and Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, shake hands after Federer won their match at the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Roger Federer, of Switzerland, celebrates after defeating Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, at the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

    Roger Federer, of Switzerland, celebrates after defeating Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, at the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

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NEW YORK — Roger Federer already has dropped two more sets at the U.S. Open than he did during his entire two weeks en route to the title at Wimbledon.

Worried about a recent back problem that kept him from getting ready the way he usually does for a Grand Slam tournament, Federer had to overcome an early deficit and a late lapse Tuesday night to edge 19-year-old American Frances Tiafoe, 4-6, 6-2, 6-1, 1-6, 6-4, in a compelling first-round contest under the Arthur Ashe Stadium roof.

”I didn’t have the preparation I was hoping to get,” Federer said. ”I always knew I was going to come in feeling rusty or not great.”

The third-seeded Federer, whose most recent of five championships at Flushing Meadows came in 2008, was broken in the first game and dropped the opening set of the topsy-turvy match. He then appeared to take control by grabbing eight of nine games to seize the second and third sets. But he let that lead slip away. There was more trouble when Federer served for the match leading 5-3 in the fifth and got broken.

”I was quite up and down,” Federer said, acknowledging that he was cautious with his footwork and had some trouble seeing the ball properly. “I was misjudging distance, being a bit cautious.”

Tiafoe’s take: ”He won by the skin of his teeth.”

Federer’s initial match point came at 5-3, 40-30, but Tiafoe staved that off, then broke. He produced a cross-court forehand winner at an unbelievable angle to earn the chance, before converting it with a terrific forehand passing winner down the line. Tiafoe roared and pumped a fist, yelling to the crowd, which included his twin brother Franklin, and sprinted to the sideline for the changeover.

When he had to come back out and serve, Tiafoe was a bit flat. Federer wasted his second match point with a netted backhand. On the third – with Federer’s wife, Mirka, covering her eyes in the stands – Tiafoe hit a stumbling forehand into the net.

”In these best-of-five-set matches,” Federer said, ”you have a lot of lives sometimes.”

It was the 36-year-old Federer’s 79th career victory at the U.S. Open, equaling Andre Agassi for second-most. Only Jimmy Connors has more, with 98.

Federer played with the roof shut at Ashe for the first time. He missed last year’s tournament, when the retractable cover made its debut, because he took off the second half of 2016 to let his surgically repaired left knee and a bad back fully heal.

”It felt like people were happy to see me again,” Federer said.

In 2017, he is 36-3 with five titles, including the Australian Open and Wimbledon, where Federer won every set he played across seven matches while collecting his record eighth trophy at the All England Club and 19th Grand Slam championship overall.

For more than a half-hour Tuesday, it appeared as if Federer was still dealing with the after-effects of having tweaked his back during a loss in the hard-court final at Montreal this month. He sat out the following week’s tournament at Cincinnati.

At least, Federer said, his back was not in pain Tuesday.

“To get through a five-setter, you have to be OK, somehow,” Federer said. “So I believe this is going to give me great confidence in the body and also in my game. My hope and my belief is that it’s only going to get better from here.”

“It was more than a test, it was a good one. It was exciting.”

Tiafoe, who is from Maryland and now is based in Florida, is ranked 70th and has never been past the second round at a major tournament. Tiafoe was profiled on an HBO “Real Sports” segment earlier this year. His parents fled the war-torn West African nation of Sierra Leone before settling in Maryland and his father worked as the janitor at a tennis academy.

This was his second match against Federer. Tiafoe pushed Federer to a first-set tiebreaker when they faced each other in March at the Miami Masters before losing in two sets.

“He is the greatest of all time,” Tiafoe said after the match. “It’s something I’ll think about for a while. Eventually, I’ll win more than I lose these.”

 

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