Roger Federer ended British hopes in the men’s singles at Wimbledon as he kept on course for a record ninth title.
I’m super relieved. It was a tough battle and it was so close. He deserved that third set, he played excellent Roger Federer
And the Swiss superstar, a month off his 40th birthday, sounded a warning to his younger rivals: “I’m playing at a high level.”
Federer reached the last 16 of a Grand Slam for the 69th time in his illustrious career when he edged out battling home No.2 Cameron Norrie 6-4 6-4 5-7 6-4 on Centre Court.
The last and only home player to defeat the Swiss at Wimbledon was Tim Henman, who was courtside, 20 years ago. In fact, Federer has now extended an unbeaten run against British players to 13 with Andy Murray the last to beat him to reach the 2013Australian Open final.
But Norrie forced Federer to work for a fourth-round date with Italian Lorenzo Sonego.
Norrie was just five when the Swiss made his first appearance at the Championships.
Yet Federer, holding back Father Time, despite recent long-term injury problems, was able to turn back the clock and become the third oldest player to make the fourth round of The Championships at 39 years 337 days behind Pancho Gonzales (41 years 57 days) in 1969 and Ken Rosewall (40 years 245 days) in 1975.
It also enabled him to maintain an impressive record against left-handers, which now stands at 27-28 with Rafa Nadal the only one to beat him.
Federer said: “I’m super relieved. It was a tough battle and it was so close. He deserved that third set, he played excellent.
“For me, I felt I was able to keep a high level of play and he got that good break at the end of the third – but overall, I can be very happy with how I played.
“It’s obviously very different [from my win in round one]. Lefties have different strengths and weaknesses. I’m playing at a high level now and things are going well for me.”
On reaching the fourth round of a Grand Slam for a record 69th time, he added: “It’s a nice stat to hear. It proves to me when I wake up in the morning that has happened. I have loved every minute and I hope there’s a bit more left in me. It’s a pleasure still playing right now. This one is special because I’m almost 40 – at this point it’s all a bonus and I will see how far I can go here.”
Federer and Norrie were meeting for the first time at Tour-level.
Britain looked in good shape heading into the third round of the men’s singles. They had three flying the flag at that stage for the first time since 1999. Murray, Dan Evans and Norrie.
But former world No.1 Murray, in his first Championships for four years after injury, and British No.1 Evans, were defeated to leave Norrie as the last home man standing – and facing the greatest grass court player of all time.
The only previous on court experience Norrie had against Federer was a Hopman Cup match when the Swiss only allowed him two games.
But there was hope with the sixth seed having only had a handful of matches in 18 months due to knee problems.
And the fact the world No.34 had the third best win-record on the ATP Tour in what has been a breakthrough year.
Could he ride the feelgood factor of 18-year-old Brit Emma Raducanu, the lone home female left in the draw, making it through to the second week in her debut campaign earlier in the day?
Norrie, unfussy, unstarry, kept his focus through the opening two sets. But Federer was serving well, not double-faulting and landing many second serves.
And he broke the 25-year-old once in each set to go 2-0 up.
The crowd, so often cheering for Federer, tried to get behind the Brit to help him along.
But the reserved Norrie seemed reluctant to engage and just went about his business in the sunshine. And kept his nose in front in the set.
Overcoming a two-set deficit is difficult against an average player let alone someone who has won an equal record of 20 Grand Slams. But Norrie refused to panic and got his reward. He saved two break points to go 6-5 ahead and suddenly had three set points on the Federer serve as the living legend proved he was mortal with a series of unforced errors.
It was the moment the reserved Norrie, with a quiet smile, decided to get the crowd involved directly as he waved his arms up and down urging the noise level to increase. A few seconds later Federer was hitting a forehand wide and long and Norrie had halved the deficit.
The home favourite’s level had increased but Federer, although not at his absolute best, maintained a high level of consistency. And it was Norrie who faltered as he was broken in the fifth game of the fourth.
But he hit straight back to break the Federer serve for the first time. Delirium abounded. It was, however, short lived as the Swiss captured a break point in the seventh game. What would Norrie do now? Crumble or fight back. It proved the latter as he moved 4-3 ahead.
Former British No.1 Andrew Castle said: “Like a wasp at a barbecue, But he had to fend off another as Norrie wouldn’t go away.
But in his next service game Norrie faced another and this time he was unable to pull it back.
And Federer served out to reach the last 16 of Wimbledon for the18th time.
Norrie was left to reflect on the fact he had suffered three third round defeats in the last three Slams, while taking comfort from the fact they were inflicted by two of the greatest players of all time, with Federer completing his unwanted hat-trick following losses against Rafa Nadal in the Australian and French Opens.