“You really feel very unique, clearly, because you are the one opening the court. That I was able to do it that many times is fantastic. I feel very proud.”
A “very, very special moment” is how Roger Federer describes his familiar role in opening the action on Centre Court as defending champion. Seven Wimbledon titles in the last 10 years, seven times the first man to tread on the immaculate grass of the most famous show court in the world 50 weeks later as ‘the champion to beat’.
“It’s always a dream come true for me,” the Swiss said after his three-set despatch of Victor Hanescu. “Once I understood what opening Monday is all about the defending champion getting the honour to open the court – it’s been an amazing day and match to be part of. I see it also for the other players. They always think it’s super exciting to be part of that match.
“I’m happy I’ve won them all,” he added. “That helps to enjoy it!”
Walking out on to Centre Court to jubilant applause in this year’s bespoke Nike jacket is Federer’s personal version of ‘Groundhog Day’, the iconic movie in which Bill Murray plays a character stuck in a time loop, repeating the same day again and again. How he wishes that scenario endures because defending a Grand Slam title is a difficult task. Though Lleyton Hewitt has the misfortune for being the only reigning Wimbledon champion since 1968 to lose in the first round, the full seven-match progression towards holding the trophy aloft in consecutive years has only been achieved 17 times here.
Perhaps it has become an increasingly difficult challenge? For it has been six years since a Wimbledon gentlemen’s singles champion retained his crown (the longest period without a successful title defence at any of the majors).
Over the next two weeks Federer has to dominate a draw of 128 players, with all that luck and six more opponents can throw at him. “I pack my bag for five sets every single time,” he said philosophically, but also with an air of patient know-how. After all, he already belongs to the august group of seven who have achieved a successful title defence at Wimbledon. The names collectively amount to a roll-call of the game’s Greats: Rod Laver (1968-69), John Newcombe (1970-71), Bjorn Borg (four defences 1976-77-78-79-80), John McEnroe (1983-84), Boris Becker (1985-86), Pete Sampras (three defences 1997-98-99-2000) and Federer himself (four, to date, 2003-04-05-06-07).
The honour of playing as defending champion is surely also a psychological advantage. It gives a sense of ownership of the stage, especially if, like Federer, you’re defending a Grand Slam title for an extraordinary seventh time. Motivation increasingly becomes the issue as players mature and notch up year after year of the relentless Tour schedule. For Federer, these 2013 Championships are no longer just about defending his honour, but about his appetite for history.
The tennis world has just seen Rafael Nadal raise the bar at Roland Garros by becoming the first man to win eight titles at the same Grand Slam event. A successful defence of his Wimbledon title would bring Federer a record eight Wimbledon titles.
“I haven’t thought about it a whole lot,” he said on the eve of Day One. “I can talk about that if I’ve won the tournament, but not right before. I know the road is hard, but it is possible. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
Federer’s twitter feed confirms that sense of determination. “Are you guys as excited as me for @Wimbledon to start?” he tweeted, in full take-me-on competitive spirit. “Always an honour to be playing opening Monday on Centre Court @Wimbledon,” read another. Note that ‘always’.