WIMBLEDON, England — One of the serves Roger Federer did not successfully return Sunday -- and certainly, there weren't enough of those to cause concern -- flicked off his racket, spun crazily behind him and landed a few rows back on Centre Court during the first game of the second set in the Wimbledon men's singles final.
Federer surveyed the damage with a glance and held up his hand in apology, almost whimsically, and settled in to face Mark Philippoussis' second serve. He proceeded to play an amazing point, finishing it with a running forehand cross-court passing shot, and then went on to break serve.
The two moves drew two reactions. You had to smile at the first and shake your head at the second. Stage presence can't be taught, and Sunday had to be considered a culmination of Federer's three-part Centre Court development.
Federer stood there for the first time two years ago, beating Pete Sampras in the fourth round. He stumbled last year in a first-round loss to Mario Ancic. This year he got back on his feet and walked off with his first Wimbledon title, beating Philippoussis of Australia, 7-6 (5), 6-2, 7-6 (3), in 1 hour 56 minutes.
The fourth-seeded Federer became the first man from Switzerland to win a Grand Slam singles title, and the 21-year-old from Basel did it by losing only one set, to Mardy Fish in the third round. Richard Krajicek of the Netherlands, who retired a couple of weeks ago, was the last Wimbledon champion to move through the draw with the loss of one set, in the 1996 tournament.
Whether the captivated fans were able to learn more about Federer, the player, or Federer, the person, is debatable. Never before had the youngster revealed so much as when he let out a gush of emotion after Philippoussis missed a return on match point. Federer dropped to his knees and later burst into tears. He lost it again during his on-court interview with BBC presenter Sue Barker, almost yelping, and his honest emotions were as endearing as his classic style of shot-making.
"They come from Switzerland," he said, smiling, of the tears. "No, I don't know. I've cried a few times on big occasions. Somehow, in the first moment, I don't think I will [cry] but then I just can't keep, keep it [in] like this."
His tears even moved a legend. Martina Navratilova, who later won the mixed doubles title, said she started crying when she saw how overwhelmed he was with emotion. She said she spotted Kim Clijsters crying too, and told her she had to pull it together for the upcoming women's doubles final.
All this came after Federer's Wimbledon hopes were running game-to-game, not just match-to-match, a week ago. He nearly retired because of an injured back against Feliciano Lopez of Spain in the fourth round last Monday.
"Did you see the match or not?" Federer asked.
Told no, the new Wimbledon champion had a friendly suggestion.
"I'm telling you, go and get a tape," he said. "I was really in big pain. I was struggling to serve. I was struggling to return. I couldn't even sit down because I was hurting so much. Then I called the trainer after two games and he gave me painkillers, he gave me a massage on my back with warm cream.
"As I told myself, 'If this continues for a few more games, and I realized that this guy was just kicking my ... , it's not worth playing.' Somehow I stayed in the match and it got a little better."
That's putting it mildly. He won in straight sets and went on to beat an injured Sjeng Schalken of the Netherlands, then out-served Andy Roddick in the semifinals and Philippoussis in the final. Federer had 21 aces to 14 for Philippoussis, one of the game's biggest servers.
Federer, who had only two double faults, never faced a break point. The first time Philippoussis reached deuce against Federer's serve was in the fourth game of the third set, an hour and 24 minutes into the match. His narrow opening was snapped shut, however, as Federer held by smacking a forehand into the corner and hitting an ace at 117 mph.
The highest point of drama came in the first-set tiebreaker. At 2-2, they played a 15-shot rally, which Federer won with a sharp forehand winner down the line. Philippoussis, serving at 4-5, undid himself by double-faulting. Two points later, Federer converted on his second set point when Philippoussis misfired well wide on a forehand return of a second serve.
"He looked like all the pressure was on him," said Philippoussis' former coach, Pat Cash. "He never really got settled the whole match. He didn't do much wrong, he wasn't quite as sharp.... It was the Philippoussis of old. If he hits these big second serves he wins. You see it time and time again. When Philippoussis loses, he doesn't hit those in."
Philippoussis, who was playing in his second Grand Slam final, said all the right things and was classy in defeat, vowing to return, using 2001 Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic as an example.