Federer fights off unseeded Falla

Updated: June 22, 2010, 2:20 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

WIMBLEDON, England -- For Roger Federer, Wimbledon nearly ended at the beginning.

The six-time champion overcame a two-set deficit to avert a monumental first-round upset, beating Alejandro Falla 5-7, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (1), 6-0.

Federer has reached the tournament final each of the past seven years, but Monday he barely survived the traditional opening match on Centre Court as defending champion.

"I live another day," Federer said. "This one is one I should have lost. That's sometimes how grass-court tennis works."

The 60th-ranked and unseeded Falla had lost all 11 sets in his previous four matches against Federer, but the Colombian played brilliant tennis to take charge of the match early. The turnaround came in the fourth set with Falla serving for the match and three points from victory, when Federer broke for only the second time.

Federer played his best after that. It's the third time in a row he has won after losing the first two sets at a Grand Slam event, but the close call was a new experience in such an early round.

"You definitely feel uncomfortable," Federer said. "For me it's not normal to be down two sets to love. Especially at Wimbledon and early on in Grand Slams, it's something I'm not quite used to."

After winning the first two sets, Falla received treatment from a trainer during the next three changeovers for an upper left leg injury, but he said it didn't affect the outcome.

No. 5 Andy Roddick, who lost to Federer in last year's epic final, began his title bid by beating fellow American Rajeev Ram 6-3, 6-2, 6-2. Roddick never faced a break point and committed only 10 unforced errors.

No. 7-seeded Nikolay Davydenko and Lleyton Hewitt of Australia also overcome slow starts.

Davydenko withstood a two-set deficit, along with Kevin Anderson's 36 aces, and won 3-6, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (3), 7-5, 9-7.

Hewitt, the 2002 champion, beat Argentina's Maximo Gonzalez, taking a little more than two hours to complete a 5-7, 6-0, 6-2, 6-2 win.

Hewitt dropped the first set after being broken, for the second time, in the 11th game but was untroubled from that point on against Gonzalez, who is still to win a match on grass.

A former No. 1, Hewitt is now ranked 26th but is seeded 15th at the All England Club due to his excellent record on grass.

Hewitt, who defeated Federer in the Wimbledon warm-up tournament at Halle, will play Evgeny Korolev in the second round.

The first day's play began in warm sunshine and ended with the Centre Court roof closed at twilight to allow the completion of No. 3 Novak Djokovic's victory over Olivier Rochus, 4-6, 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2. The match ended at 11 p.m.

No. 11 Marin Cilic lost to Florian Mayer 6-2, 6-4, 7-6 (1), and No. 17 Ivan Ljubicic was beaten by Michal Przysiezny 7-5, 7-6 (5), 6-3. No. 16 Jurgen Melzer and No. 21 Gael Monfils advanced, as did Americans Mardy Fish and Brendan Evans.

Dustin Brown, the first Jamaican man to play in a Grand Slam tournament since 1974, lost to Melzer 6-3, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3.

For Falla, the pivotal moment came when he served for the biggest victory of his career at 5-4 in the fourth set. He made shaky errors on the first two points, and a pair of deft forehands by Federer gave him the break.

Federer ran away with the tiebreaker, taking advantage of four more unforced errors by Falla, and the disconsolate Colombian mustered little resistance in the final set.

"I think about the lost opportunity," Falla said. "On the other hand, I played a great match. I had Federer against the ropes."

There had been signs coming into the tournament that Federer might be vulnerable. He lost at the French Open this month in the quarterfinals, his earliest Grand Slam exit in six years. Then he dropped to No. 2 in the rankings behind nemesis Rafael Nadal. Then at a Wimbledon warm-up event came Federer's second grass-court defeat since 2003, extending his drought of nearly five months without a title.

But no one expected so much trouble against a 26-year-old journeyman who has yet to win a tournament. There were stretches of stunned silence from the crowd, dumbfounded by the score. Fans also roared in appreciate of Falla's frequent winners.

"He played great," Federer said. "He was the one who put me in that kind of a score. I thought I was actually playing decent. Credit to him."

The match was Falla's third in the past four weeks against Federer, which at first worked to the Colombian's advantage. He kept Federer off balance by coming to the net often and made good use of cross-court shots from the baseline.

The left-handed Falla was unfazed by Federer's serve, one of the sport's best, and repeatedly won points serving to Federer's backhand -- a tactic frequently employed by another lefty, Nadal.

Federer searched for more than two hours to find his championship form. He slipped several times on the immaculate lawn and shanked shots, hitting one forehand so wild that Falla had to leap out of the way.

The tournament began under partly cloudy skies, with temperatures headed into the mid-70s, but things quickly turned gloomy for Federer. He was 0-for-6 on break point chances before putting a forehand winner on the line to close out the third set.

He lost serve to start the next set, and found himself on the verge of defeat with Falla serving at 5-4.

Then Federer's big surge began. Barely 30 minutes later, he kissed the line with his final shot for a winner and walked to the net to give Falla a sympathetic pat on the shoulder.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.