WIMBLEDON — Four days before the official start of Wimbledon, Roger Federer was on Aorangi Park practice court No. 8, where he was parrying two juniors with his backhand at the net. It’s been 15 years since Federer first won the grass-court major, when the young men across from him were mere toddlers, and yet here he was like a wizened old Jedi schooling two aspiring Skywalkers at once with his racket.
A school group in uniform toured the area and a teacher said in a low, almost reverent tone, “There’s one of the greatest sportsmen of all time, ever.”
Federer’s footwork at the ripe age of 36 seemed as fleet as ever to 17-year-old Aidan McHugh, the Glasgow native playing in the junior tournament picked to hit with him on Thursday. The freckled McHugh has often hit with fellow Scot Andy Murray, so the variation from Murray’s heavy ball was noticeable.
“He’s dead nice, and I’m a one-hander as well,” McHugh said. “Andy hits the ball really hard but Federer has a great slice and changes the pace. He’s just really smart and pretty decent at the net.”
McHugh smiled at the dramatic understatement of “pretty decent.”
Once again, Federer is Wimbledon’s top men’s seed and will meet Dusan Lasovic in his first match.
Since taking on coach Ivan Ljubicic in 2016, the Swiss champion has been surging, winning his eighth Wimbledon title last year.
If you watch him practice, the way he smoothly dips to catch a low ball with his one-handed backhand or the way he can volley a heavy groundstroke and make it gently tiptoe off his racket, he doesn’t look fundamentally different from the 19-year-old who beat seven-time Wimbledon champion Pete Sampras in the fourth round in 2001.
It was an uncharacteristically noisy arrival for a player known for being low-key, and one of the clearest moments where one champion passed the torch to another.
Yet Federer doesn’t appear ready to relinquish it, and it’s not quite clear who his heir might be. The so-called Big Four is in flux. Two-time champion Rafael Nadal is the second seed but hasn’t gotten past the fourth round here since being a finalist in 2011. Novak Djokovic is just the No. 12 seed and Murray, now ranked 156th, is recovering from hip surgery and has just started playing tournaments after an 11-month absence.
Grass is a specific surface, and plenty of top-ranked players have struggled to excel on it. Those who do well tend to be big servers with a good net game, and there are several of those in the draw. Last year’s runner up, Marin Cilic, is seeded third, and 2016 runner up Milos Raonic holds the No. 13 seed despite injuries.
American Sam Querrey, who reached a Wimbledon semifinal in 2017, is seeded 11th and is in Federer’s quarter of the draw. No. 23 Richard Gasquet and No. 9 John Isner are also proven players on the surface.
Next generation stars such as No. 4 Alexander Zverev, No. 7 Dominic Thiem and No. 16 Borna Coric have yet to prove themselves consistent on grass.