LONDON – Normally the aged tennis tournament known as Wimbledon opens its gates in much the same manner employed by the log-ago Romans at their Colosseum. Throw some citizens to the lions, and see who could be entertaining.
Sometimes, but only rarely, the lesser known of the tennis crowd escape their first round fate by giving the seeded lions indigestion. It’s bannered as an upset, such seldom happening on the opening day of the 133-year-old Big W, the grand-daddy of all tournaments.
But never mind the normal. The Monday Malaise of Roger Federer, the biggest of lions prowling the handsomely groomed grass courts and the beds of white and purple petunias, could be called abnormal-plus. Here was Federer, with six Wimbledon titles in his paws and standing forth as defending champion, the guy who traditionally launches the tournament. He had beaten his last six introductory opponents without losing a set on those lift-off days. Yet he was saying to himself in the third set, “I’m going to lose…. I’m going to lose.” That, he said, was a very “uncomfortable feeling” that he “almost never” experiences. As he fell farther and farther behind, the full-house audience of 14,971 gasped, groaned and tried to cheer him.
And who was causing perhaps the greatest abnormality in Wimbledon history? Why it was your favorite Colombian, No. 65 in the world, Alejandro Falla, playing his heart out. Somehow, Falla and Federer got their roles mixed up, and the patrons in hallowed Centre Court were going crazy. Quick with a sharp forehand, Falla was supposed to be the fall guy. Instead, however, he portrayed one of the lions as he pulled Federer’ tail and actually served for the match in the fourth set. Three points away from victory – so temptingly close — on his own serve at 5-4, 15-30. Ah, within Alejandro’s reach: this ball park’s most earth-shivering upset, a putdown of an all-time great. Alejandro, lusting for it, reached — but he couldn’t quite grasp it.
Federer regained his leonine status to win, in three hours 18 minutes, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (6-1), 6-0, but he had been scared by the left hander, a slim 6 footer out of towering Bogota. Alejandro is a dangerous character, who will lead Colombia’s Davis Cup charge against the US in September on Bogota clay up high, 8,661 feet.
Falla was pretty high himself, even in defeat. “I think today is a special day in tennis. Nobody [else] could say ‘I was serving for the match against Federer.’ Many players would like to be in that situation.”
“But in the fourth set I started thinking what a big opportunity I just missed. But Roger, he just played better and better when he won the fourth set.”
For nearly two hours Falla romped through the happiest time of his life. Ahead by two sets, then even at 4-4, he hadn’t lost serve, and we were starting to think this might be the lalapalooza of abnormalities.
What else compared? In 1967 unseeded American Charlie Pasarell knocked off defending champ Manolo Santana, a Spaniard in the first round. Seven years ago 6-foot 10 Croat, Ivo Karlovic, a qualifier ranked No. 203, took down Aussie Lleyton Hewitt, No. 1 and defending champ at the very beginning.
But derailing the mighty, long-time tenant Federer would have taken the Colombian national dessert, three milk cake (Pastel de tres leches).
“I couldn’t read his serve. I was rattled, said Federer, who was 4-0 against Falla, having beaten him recently at the French. “But the 9th game of the third was important” – down 4 break points from 0-40. That got me to 5-4. Otherwise he probably would have beaten me in straight sets. I was lucky. You need luck sometimes.”
As the clouds rolled away and the sun appeared, Federer got hotter with his difference-making forehand.
Since winning the Australian Open Federer has been slumping, losing surprisingly to six lesser known guys, plus Rafa Nadal and Robin Soderling. “Some of those I should have won, had match points. But this one I should have lost.”
So Falla didn’t become the first Alejandro to conquer Wimbledon. That was Peruvian Alejandro Olmedo in 1958. Nor did he create the monster explosion. But almost. Almost pulled the leading lion off his throne by the tail. I know almost doesn’t count for much – but Alejandro will always have a piece of Wimbledon.