WIMBLEDON, England -- In assessing Roger Federer's chances of winning a third consecutive Wimbledon singles title, even though his recent form has been far from his best, remember something vitally important about the nature of champions. Most of the great ones have a kind of sixth sense that is both physical and mental: an ability to lift their games at critical times, to kick into a higher gear when necessary, not so much at will as by force of will.
It is an instinct for survival when they are not playing their best. It is a knack of knowing their environment, and making the arena their own when it matters the most. It is plucking a rose out of a weed patch -- coming up with a shot mere good athletes can barely imagine just when you seem uncertain and vulnerable. Those things bring an upset-minded opponent back to earth, quickly.
When Bill Bradley was a basketball star, first at Princeton and then with the New York Knicks, he talked about "a sense of where you are." He was referring mostly to a heightened spatial awareness, knowing precisely your position on the court and your relationship to the basket.
The most outstanding tennis players have something similar. It is a sense of where you are on the court, and what you can do from that position. On another plane, it is a sense of where you are in a match, and what you have to do to get through it successfully.
Federer -- who has won 32 consecutive grass-court matches, including 17 at Wimbledon -- was not at the top of his lofty game on Saturday against Nicolas Kiefer of Germany, ranked No. 26 in the world. But he fought his way through to Monday's fourth round, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 6-1, 7-5, and that match may well help him sharpen up for the push to the championship next Sunday.
Jimmy Connors, the champion of 1974 and 1987, had just finished commenting for the BBC on David Nalbandian's revival from two sets down to dash the spirited run of 18-year-old Andrew Murray, the last Briton left in singles. Connors was signing autographs and posing for photos with fans when I caught up with him outside the broadcast center to see what he thought of the theory that Federer could actually benefit from a generally lackluster performance dotted with occasional spectacular shots.
"That's what it's all about -- winning when you're only 70 percent. Figuring it out on that kind of day," Connors said. "Federer has got the game that can figure it out. That's the most important thing about him. He's young enough (23), and he's in good enough shape, that a four-setter at this stage won't bother him, and might help him. Kiefer is not a bad player. He's a good player, and he came up with one of the best matches he's played, and caught Federer on an off-day, and still lost, so what does that tell you about Federer?
"It's fun to watch these guys play -- especially the guys who are able to mix it up, come up with the power game, and have a little bit of old school in their game, too," Connors added. "The way they can change the pace and work the ball around. Nalbandian is a little like that, too. He doesn't get into the net quite enough, but he has a little bit of the old school in him, too. Federer's game I really like."
A glorious arsenal of shots. And a keen sense of where you are.
On the middle Saturday of Wimbledon, the Chairman of the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club invites luminaries from the sports and entertainment world to sit in the Royal Box on Centre Court. There was quite a galaxy of stars on hand when Federer and Kiefer took the court. The convocation included past tennis champions Billie Jean King and Tony Trabert, British Open golf contender Ernie Els, and in honor of London's 2012 Olympic bid, a host of British gold medalists and world record holders spanning several Olympiads. Actor Sir Sean Connery was also present, and introduced during the ceremonies with unaccustomed levity for Wimbledon: "a man who, as 007, deserved a fistful of medals for nocturnal sports."
Brits may remember Connery most for his portrayal of the suave James Bond, but he also co-starred with Michael Caine in a film titled "The Man Who Would Be King." At Wimbledon, that would be Federer -- again. And though the Royal Box guests departed from typical decorum and joined happily with other Centre Court spectators in doing "the wave" during a break in the action, they also paid close attention to Federer. This was a high-achieving group that knows what champions are made of, and it must have been impressed with Federer's sense of where he was, and what he had to do, when he was not at his regal best.
Customarily tough in tiebreakers, Federer played a loose one to lose the second set. Twice Kiefer broke his serve in the fourth set, for 2-0 and 5-3 leads, and both times Federer stepped it up and broke right back.
Champions elevate their level at crunch time. Amid the uncharacteristically tight or untidy shots, Federer produced a few that were breathtaking -- defying gravity, geometry, physics and belief. Seemingly caught in no man's land, he flicked an off-balance half-volley with something on it that landed an inch inside the line. Two points from the end of the match, he came up with a running backhand short-angle winner that most folks couldn't conjure up in a dream.
"He always does make some beautiful shots," said John Lloyd, former British Davis Cup player. "For any of the guys who have won Grand Slam tournaments, they'll say that in seven matches, they'll always have one or two that they aren't playing great. Roger was up and down. I'm sure he thought it was kind of an ugly match. But he just kicked in mentally and got through it. That could help him later on, absolutely. He got four sets in, won the match, didn't play great, but knows he's got that extra gear to step up to. He'll be getting in his groove, playing better next week. He is not playing as well as I would have thought he would be by now, I must say, but good enough to win. I'm sure of that."
For his own part, Federer said: "In the end, if I win in five, five hours on the court, or in one hour, it doesn't matter as long as I keep on winning. I think I have to keep that in mind. This was definitely a test today. I think I had to survive some tough moments."
But his real concept of who he is -- that champion's sense of where you are -- was evident when he was asked if anything less than winning a third straight Wimbledon title would be satisfactory. If he made the final and lost a five-set thriller ablaze with great shotmaking, would he walk off the court feeling fine?
"No, probably not," said The Man Who Would Be King Again. "I wouldn't be satisfied."
Most champions never are.
Barry Lorge, former Washington Post staff writer and sports editor/columnist of The San Diego Union, has covered tennis in more than 25 countries on five continents. He co-authored the section on tennis in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.