Every year I watch a lot of tennis—it’s a fact of my life. But this year, I made a concerted effort to watch even more than my usual dose, because the golden age of men’s tennis, in which we are currently ensconced, can’t last forever, and I want to bask in its greatness while still possible.
At some point, the music has to stop. Nothing lasts forever.
In the not too distant future, Roger Federer will stop defying the laws of aging and start to lose his form. Rafael Nadal might bounce back from the torn patella tendon that has sidelined him since Wimbledon or he might completely succumb to the knee injuries that have plagued him throughout his career.
That will leave Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, neither of whom carries the wear and tear of Federer and Nadal, to battle against lesser players like Juan Martin del Potro and Milos Raonic for supremacy of the tennis world. The days when the current hierarchy ruled the roost will just be a part of history.
Last night, it felt like we took a collective step towards that reality. It started with the retirement of Andy Roddick (later bro!) and ended with Tomas Berdych sending Federer home earlier than anyone could have predicted. The loss qualifies as a significant upset and a possible sign that Federer’s inevitable decline is closer than we are ready to admit.
Yes, Berdych defeated the Swiss at their last meeting in a major, but coming into this year’s U.S. Open, Federer was one of the favorites, if not the favorite, to hoist the trophy on September 9. He was coming off a summer in which he won Wimbledon, finished second at the Olympics and trounced Novak Djokovic at the Masters 1000 event in Cincinnati.
Before the tournament began, Federer told reporters “I felt good last year, but probably felt that maybe at times the matches were not always in my racquet, whereas maybe this time around I feel like if I'm playing well I can dictate who's going to win or lose.”
But that’s the funny thing about sports and aging. One day a guy is oozing confidence and playing spectacular tennis and then the next day he isn’t. It really isn’t any deeper than that.
In the aftermath of this loss, lots of people will proffer various explanations as to what went wrong: Berdych’s power was too much to handle, the walkover in the fourth round disrupted Fed’s rhythm, etc.
For me, it is just a reminder that as athletes age, the first thing to go is consistency. At times, Federer can still resemble the 25 year old who tore through the tour in 2006. But at other times he looks like an older version of his once untouchable self and needs a bit of luck to get through a grand slam draw.
Consider his last three major tournaments. At the French Open, Juan Martin del Potro held a two-sets-to-love lead on Federer in the quarterfinals before a sore knee visibly hampered Del Po’s mobility. Federer was able to mount a comeback.
At Wimbledon, Federer was almost, and arguably should have been, upset by Julian Benneteau in the third round (the third round). Benneteau held a two-love lead before cramping limited his movement. Federer was able to mount a comeback.
Last night, the script repeated itself once again. Federer looked half-asleep during the first two sets—smacking unforced errors with jarring consistency—and found himself in a two-set hole to Berdych. A stretch of vintage Federer shot making in the third set allowed him to get one back and everything was in place for another epic comeback. But unlike Del Potro and Benneteau, Berdych never succumbed to any physical ailments. He righted the ship in the fourth set and beat Federer with the same brand of hard-hitting tennis that had earned him a two-set lead in the first place.
Berdych deserves credit for playing well, but the underlying truth is Federer beat himself. He shanked makeable forehands, served poorly and generally carried himself as if the weight of the world hung on his shoulders.
Was he tired? Intimidated? Bored? Irritated by the humid conditions? It’s impossible to say, but one thing is for certain: the 17-time grand slam winner just didn’t look like himself. He looked old, and that’s a scary thing to contemplate for tennis fans.
He also offered some curious quotes after the match (courtesy of ESPN.com).
“I've got to go back to the drawing board right now and see what is the priority”
“I should come in here with tons of energy, ready to go, but who knows?" Federer said after the match. "If you get that day in, that match with Fish, [it's] maybe more confidence, who knows? Maybe that was something that the first two matches didn't give me enough. I don't know.”
Those words smack of resignation rather than defiance, and one has to wonder if Federer still has enough motivation in the tank to sustain the level of excellence we have come to expect from him at every major tournament.
The truth is Federer would have won the match had he brought his A-game. Berdych is good, but he doesn’t have anywhere near the skill-level required to match shots with an energized Federer. The loss feels like a signpost pointing to a future on which any given day Roger Federer could look painfully average.
Perhaps I am overreacting. After all, I can’t think of another athlete whose career has more often been prematurely declared over by members of the media. But the point I’m trying to make is that any way you slice it, Federer’s future will contain more painful losses like last night’s than it will grand slam titles.
Like Tiger Woods, the athlete with whom he has often been compared, Federer can still, on any given day, compete with the best the world has to offer. But he can also burn out on the back nine, metaphorically speaking, and lose to players who he should own.
I will be very interested to see how Federer reacts to this loss. Will he make it a point to contend for the titles at the Shanghai and Paris Masters and the ATP World Tour Finals? Or will he take some time off and contemplate how much longer he wants to compete? For the sake of tennis, I hope he continues to give it his all until his body can take no more.
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