London: If the spectacle of Roger Federer on No.1 Court felt odd, like watching Sir Laurence Olivier back in repertory theatre, then the notion of him losing to Kevin Anderson, the gangly South African against whom he held match point, was almost unconscionable.
And yet lose he did, in a sprawling five-set epic lasting four hours and 14 minutes, as the prospect of him equalling Martina Navratilova's record of nine Wimbledon singles titles slipped away in the early-evening sunshine. As inspired as Anderson was, the crowd's reaction as the champion's final shot wafted long felt like a deep and anguished sigh.
By and large, the RF-branded zealots who queue at Wimbledon for two days and upwards to salute their idol do not do so in anticipation of matches as tense as this. They come instead to marvel at a travelling Swiss art installation, where the aesthetic is sumptuous but the outcome preordained.
Signs of "quiet, genius at work" were out in force after Federer polished off the first set without a bead of perspiration, but at some point the unthinkable happened, as his play became – would it be sacrilege to say it? – predictable. "I couldn't surprise him any longer," he reflected. "That wasn't a good feeling."
It was Federer's 16th Wimbledon quarter-final, a familiar ritual but this time a fundamentally different experience. The setting saw to that: while No.1 Court might be just a short and leafy stroll from Centre, it was, in Federer terms, the equivalent of Outer Mongolia. He had not been relegated to this secondary stage since 2015, when he prevailed in straight sets over Gilles Simon, and this time he looked, by the end at least, curiously uneasy.
The rationale of those in the referees' office was clear enough: they glanced at the match-up and presumed Federer would squash Anderson in time for a mid-afternoon nap. Instead, they wound up scripting the type of marathon that can end even the greatest careers.
In 2002, Pete Sampras, then with seven Wimbledon titles, was shipped out to the boondocks of No.2 Court, where he succumbed in five to Swiss journeyman George Bastl. He never played a match at the All England Club again. It would be premature to suppose that Federer would take his own humbling in alien surrounds as his cue to step away, given his reassurance afterwards that "the goal is to come back next year". But he turns 37 next month, and nothing about this luminous autumn of his playing days should be taken for granted.
Reassuringly, Federer's sense of his own gifts was not dented by this defeat. It is a feature of his rare losses at major tournaments that he sweeps into his post-match press conference within minutes, and he handled this one with customary hauteur. His assessment of Anderson's game? "He's got a nice, big serve he can rely heavily on." The expression "damning with faint praise" came to mind.
What was different about his opponent's game this time? "He got what he needed when he had to. Credit to him for hanging around that long."
When one reporter had the temerity to suggest that it had been a "bad day", the mask of studied Swiss cool slipped a little.
"It wasn't bad," he corrected her, crossly. "Average."
In truth, Anderson deserved greater recognition. Having trailed by sets two to love, he rediscovered the blunderbuss groundstrokes that make him such a danger on grass, limiting Federer's ability to resort to his favourite one-two punch. Throughout a riveting final set, he kept up the unerring accuracy on his serve, not offering up a single point for Federer to break.
Given the ease with which Wimbledon's most decorated man had swept through the four rounds to this stage, it was a remarkable feat.
"I really hope that this is an example of sticking with your dreams," Anderson said.
For this son of Johannesburg, it was a reminder that his finest moments, not least a surge to last year's US Open final, had been far more than mere aberrations.
For Federer, there was only the frustration of a golden chance lost, especially as the draw had fallen in his favour.
Such are the vagaries of sport: he had just equalled his record of winning 34 consecutive sets at Wimbledon, but somehow, like a bolt from a clear blue sky, he contrived to lose the next three.
Then again, nothing on No.1 Court felt normal yesterday, as the strange scheduling ensured that members of the press mingled with émigrés from the Royal Box on Centre. Carole Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge's mother, was here supporting Federer, who had been guest of honour at her daughter Pippa's wedding. Late in the third set, she left, unable to take the anxiety any longer.
She missed some wonderful drama, even if it lacked the ultimate catharsis.
The Telegraph, London
Most Viewed in Sport
Morning & Afternoon Newsletter