Federer overcomes niggling back injury to thwart Malisse


TENNIS: THE INTERMITTENT rain ensured a frustrating afternoon for all but Centre Court tickets holders at Wimbledon but even those with access to the premier show court at the All England club found an afternoon’s entertainment threatened in unlikely circumstances.

A back injury sustained by Roger Federer in his match against Xavier Malisse forced him to seek medical assistance off-court following the seventh game of the first set. The crowd fidgeted nervously as the minutes ticked by and there was a palpable feeling of relief in the warm round of applause that greeted his return after an eight-minute injury sabbatical.

The six-time Wimbledon champion, who had tweaked his back earlier in the set, played three or four games with the problem before seeking medical opinion. He explained: “I felt the back going at the beginning of the first set. I asked for the trainer and the doctor to come out to just talk about it. I decided to have treatment inside.

“I guess it must be a mix of maybe the five-setter (in the last round), the two days off and the cold wind today. Fortunately I pulled out (a victory in) the match the way I did.”

Federer eked out a win in four sets, 7-6, 6-1, 4-6, 6-3 but it was a little more fraught than the raw numbers indicate. He dropped his serve and had to break back immediately before taking the first set to a tie-break, which he motored through and continued in that vein to take a two-set lead.

Malisse produced greater fluency to his play, breaking in the opening game of the third and not relinquishing that impetus. When he forged a 2-0 lead in the fourth, the Belgian appeared well placed to extend the contest into a deciding set.

Federer, as he often manages in similar circumstances, elevates the quality of his tennis to a point that leaves opponents flummoxed and floundering as they try and scramble for an escape route: Malisse could only cobble together four points in the next five games. Thoughts of parity had been ruthlessly supplanted by a hefty shunt towards defeat, which duly materialised two games later.

The 16-time Grand Slam champion, Federer, who is looking to match Pete Sampras’ record of seven Wimbledon titles, suggested that the medical prognosis on his back was positive. “I mean, (it’s) way better than a few hours ago, so that’s pretty good. But honestly I’m not too worried. 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 now. Two good night’s sleeps and I’ll be 100 per cent.”

He expressed sympathy for his opponent given the distractions that Malisse had to endure. “Look, today I thought was extremely difficult for Xavier. I did apologise to him after the match for the first set; not that I had anything to do with it. I know how hard it is playing somebody that is injured.

“Today conditions were tough; a lot of wind, cold, (and the) rain delay. I had the back thing going; so obviously it was hard to get any sort of rhythm, which I think indoors would have been quite different.”

Federer’s next assignment – only three of the men’s fourth-round matches were completed including a win for number one seed and defending champion Novak Djokovic – is against a familiar face from both the immediate past and his days as a junior, Mikhail Youzhny.

“I played him last week in Halle (Germany). I played him here last year on grass, and again at Halle years back. We’ve played a lot, to be honest, on grass. We know what to expect, both of us. I think he’s a great player.

“He can take the ball early; he can mix it up well and he’s a great fighter. I had an extremely tough match with him last year on Court One. I expect something similar,” added Federer.

Given the circumstances of the niggling back problem Federer will appreciate the little extra rest, something that won’t be afforded many of his rivals. In order to accommodate yesterday’s fractured schedule, play on the show courts today will start an hour earlier (12.0) as the All England club plays catch-up.

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