Federer Falls at Wimbledon

22:55 Thu 01 Jul 2010
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Of the top four seeds, three are through to the semifinals—making it all the more shocking that the only one not to make it is Roger Federer. Tomas Berdych beat him in the quarterfinals 6–4, 3–6, 6–1, 6–4. Losing at the quarterfinal stage in Paris is one thing, but at Wimbledon, where Federer had been in the finals for seven consecutive years? That’s absolutely an upset. The problem is it wasn’t a hugely surprising upset in that Berdych was clearly going to trouble Federer, playing the same kind of power game that Söderling and Del Potro (and, in a more limited way, Davydenko) have been able to hurt him with over the past year. A shocker, but one that you could almost sense coming.

Failing to make the semifinals at a single Grand Slam tournament could have been a minor blip; failing to make two in a row, given Federer’s absurdly high standards, seems a calamity.

I didn’t see the match, only brief highlights. Those were enough to reveal much, particularly the break point he had when Berdych was serving for the match. Federer was pushing him, and Berdych missed his first serve. His second serve went to the forehand, the famed “great liquid whip”, and even though I already knew the outcome, I still expected Federer to pounce on it and produce a winner. Instead, it was a halfhearted attempt that ended up mistimed and dumped meekly into the net. Berdych didn’t give him another chance.

It’s seemed for much of this year, and some of last year, that Federer’s killer instinct was waning. He let Del Potro off the hook in the second set at the US Open; he lost a disturbing amount of times after holding match point; he started losing matches where he had a lead when that would have never happened in the past.

The notion of “killer instinct” in tennis is continuing to execute at a high level when your opponent is vulnerable, and it may be that Federer’s consistency just isn’t there. That’s intimately connected with the failures of his fearsome forehand. The balancing act of choosing correctly when to go for outright winners and when to just stay in the point, when to move the opponent around and when to go for the percentage shot, is one that Federer has maintained in sublime fashion for years. His game from 2004 to 2009 may have been the finest in tennis history; it may also have been the most finely tuned. That is, it depended on a very precise mixture of finesse, power, speed, technique, endurance, psychological strength, court awareness, tactical brilliance, creativity, improvisation, and versatility—probably the greatest such mixture that tennis has ever seen. But now, when age, injury, the pressure of unprecedented constant success, and the rise of players with significantly more powerful games, the balance of his game is being thrown off.

Prior to Del Potro in the 2009 US Open final, the only player I’d seen upset the balance of Federer’s game was Nadal, and even there Nadal had to play absolutely sublime tennis of his own to overcome Federer, and it didn’t always happen. Now, however, there’s Del Potro, Söderling, Berdych… and probably others who can break through against him. The power game, long feared as the next phase in tennis, may be ascendant at last. It’s possible that Federer and Nadal, by themselves, have held it off a decade longer than would otherwise have been the case.

I don’t think Federer is done. He can win another Wimbledon, hopefully two more (because I want him to beat Sampras’ record). He can win other titles also. I’m less sure about his regaining the number one ranking once more. It’s certainly not out of the question, but it’ll be extremely difficult, which is a real shame (I want him to beat Sampras’ record there too…). I think he’ll continue to produce amazing tennis, but it will be harder for him to prevent others from stopping him doing so.

He’s certainly suffering some from the effects of getting older, but I think he’s got years of potential left. As hard as it is to watch him struggle in vain to summon the perfectly balanced game he dominated with for so long, I think that it’s always possible for him to attain it for a given Grand Slam, and when he does, it will seem—all too briefly, I fear—as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, as if the force and cunning of his genius are and always will be irresistible. He made that true for years. The question now is whether he can do so again and maintain it long enough to be once more a major factor in tennis.

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