Roger Federer's resurgence in 2012 continues to confuse casual tennis fans and reporters.
Now that Fed has played so well again, some expect him to play well every match. This is ridiculous, given that Federer is 31 years old and in a new chapter of his career that followed two or three years of much more inconsistent performance. Of course, he's going to run into tough matches like Wednesday night's defeat against Tomas Berdych, 6-7, 4-6, 6-3, 3-6.
The only way that Federer, at this stage of his career, can win against the world's top players—Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal, or, yes, Tomas Berdych—is to have all aspects of his game working. Especially his serve.
Let's be clear here: At this stage, Federer MUST have a very good serve to defeat one of these top players—period. Federer's whole "new approach"—to be more aggressive and shorten rallies—is dependent on his serve, which, uncoincidentally, has been superb for much of his surprisingly terrific performance from the end of 2011 and for most of 2012.
On Wednesday night, Federer's serve was, as commentator John McEnroe put it, "subpar." Berdych broke Federer several times and made Federer work hard to win service games. In the Cincinnati tournament that preceded the US Open, Federer's serve was not broken once!
Oh, yes, Federer won that tournament, defeating Djokovic in the finals. In his first three matches at the US Open, Federer's serve was not broken once. So, when his serve dipped sharply in quality Wednesday, the outcome shouldn't have surprised so many. Unless you expect Federer, at his age, to serve well every match. I don't.
What made Federer's task even harder vs. Berdych was that Roger's forehand was "off" too. He racked up a ton of unforced errors on his normally superb forehand, forcing him into a more steeply uphill match vs. Berdych. (In fact, 24 of Federer's unusually high total of 40 unforced errors came on his forehand). Federer's game is a bit more vulnerable now. He cannot survive a match like Wednesday's—with his serve AND his forehand not in top form.
Of course, the other very large factor was Berdych's outstanding performance. Berdych played the best match I've seen him play. His serve was consistently outstanding and his ground strokes were fantastic. He belted many forehands that surprised Federer and either got by him or forced him on his heels and into a weak return.
On this night, his first under the lights at the US Open, Berdych was on fire. His shots seemed to land just where he aimed. He was focused. I'd argue he might have beaten any opponent Wednesday night.
On the other hand, Berdych has an impressive record vs. Federer. Yes, Federer was 11-4 vs. Tomas going into the match, but, the two had split their last six matches and Berdych, unlike most on the men's tour, had found ways to pose a threat to Federer. His powerful serve and hard-hitting ground strokes put pressure on Federer by reducing his room for error.
Federer has had an amazing run in 2012. He defeated Djokovic and Murray consecutively at Wimbledon to win his first major since the Australian Open in 2010. With his new aggressive approach and strategy, he's played better than anyone since the end of 2011, allowing him to regain the No. 1 ranking in the world.
No one thought Federer could do that. I'd argue that his 2012 Wimbledon win was, in many ways, the most impressive of his 17 Grand Slam victories. It was against the odds.
Yet, now that we've seen Federer return to Earth a bit—with his loss to Murray at the 2012 Olympic Games and now, his loss to Berdych at the US Open—isn't it time to keep Federer's win/loss record in perspective? Isn't it obvious that even though he had a fantastic 2012 run, he's not the same player he was in 2004?
Who knows whether Federer will another Slam? The odds will keep getting tougher, but one thing is clear: For Federer to win a Slam now, at his age, he must be playing on all cylinders. He must be serving really well. If not, he'll lose—as he did to Berdych. Federer, after all, is human. As he gets older, he has fewer ways to win matches.