ROGER FEDERER avoided an unthinkable slip-up – thanks to his opponent taking a tumble.
The greatest player of all time was in deep trouble against world No41 Adrian Mannarino, who went two sets to one up and looked to be heading for victory.
But towards the end of the fourth set the Frenchman twisted his knee on the Centre Court turf – hours before Serena Williams also retired hurt from a fall.
To his credit, the 33-year-old birthday boy tried to continue after receiving treatment.
But he had to throw in the towel just one point into the fifth set, with the score tied at 6-4 6-7 3-6 6-2.
It rescued Federer from the prospect of a first Grand Slam exit at the first round since the French Open in 2003.
That was a month before he won Wimbledon to lift his first Slam and begin a remarkable career.
A magnanimous Federer, 39, said: “It’s awful. It shows that one shot can change the outcome of a match, a season, a career.
“I do feel it feels a tad more slippery maybe under the roof. I don’t know if it’s just a gut feeling.
“You do have to move very, very carefully out there. If you push too hard in the wrong moments, you do go down.
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“I wish him all the best and hope he recovers quickly so we can see him back on the courts.
“He could have won the match. He was the better player. I definitely got a bit lucky.
“You don’t get many walkovers in a career and you try not to have it happen to yourself. It’s a reminder of how quickly it goes.”
Federer’s last appearance at Wimbledon came in the 2019 final, when he threw away two match points to lose an epic five-setter against Novak Djokovic.
He returned here just six weeks shy of his 40th birthday hoping to lift his eight title and a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam singles title.
Yet his opening game summed up his ‘up and down’ match performance, as he had to recover from 0-40 down on serve.
He looked comfortable enough in the first set which he took 6-4, firing a few trademark backhands down the line to please the crowd.
But the errors began to creep in in the second set and Mannarino grew in confidence, despite losing all six of his previous encounters with the Swiss icon.
The Frenchman celebrated his birthday in style as he took the second set on tie-break and broke Federer twice to clinch the third.
His legendary opponent battled back in the fourth and looked on course to set up a tantalising decider – before Mannarino’s unfortunate slip ended the contest.
The hurting leftie said: “I think I just sprained my knee.
“A basic grass court injury that happened to me before in the past ten years when I was playing qualies in Roehampton.
“I felt the same sensation on court. I just slid down and it was really slippery.
“I heard a big crack and I knew straight away that I wouldn’t be able to do anything anymore.”
While Federer struggled, fellow superstar veteran Venus Williams, 41, marked her 90th Grand Slam appearance by beating Romanian Mihaela Buzarnescu 7-5 4-6 6-3.
World No1 Ashleigh Barty was made to work against Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro, making her emotional final SW19 appearance after recovering from cancer.
Aussie Barty, who won 6-1 6-7 6-1, said: “She’s a hell of a competitor, a hell of a fighter.
“It was a privilege to be able to share that moment, share that court with her.”
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