Roger Federer isn't the king of clay courts, but he was the defending champion of the Madrid Open heading into his third-round match with Kei Nishikori on Thursday afternoon.
Federer lost the match (6-4, 1-6, 6-2), a chance to repeat as Madrid Open champ and some key momentum before the second major tournament of the year.
His loss to Nishikori could have far-reaching effects in his bid to win his 18th career major at the French Open when the tournament arrives at the end of May.
Federer got off to a terrible start in the match against Nishikori, losing the first set to the Japanese challenger before really figuring things out in the second. He only lost one game in tying up the set tally at one apiece, and looked to have all the momentum heading into the final set.
After a two-month layoff from the sport, Federer couldn't regain any of his long-standing magic in the final set, dropping the 6-2 finish after having his serve broken twice by Nishikori to seal the deal. The loss sends both top seeds at the tournament home early, as No. 1-seeded Novak Djokovic lost in the second round of the tournament earlier in the week.
When he had a chance to address the media, Federer was clearly not happy with his performance, stating that he would be heading back to the practice court before taking any more time off (h/t ATP World Tour on Twitter):
ATP World Tour @ATPWorldTour
"I'm going to go back to the practice court," says #Federer after what he labels a "disappointing" display. http://t.co/9Qp6J2AreB #atp2013-5-9 18:54:32
The loss is a sour note to head into the 2013 French Open, and gets even tougher to swallow if you're a FedEx fan after you check out what Rafael Nadal is doing this year in both his 2013 schedule and in Madrid this week.
Nadal cruised past his third-round opponent—Russian Mikhail Youzhny—in straight sets on Thursday, setting himself up for the quarterfinals and a spot in the final eight, where he can win his third (2005 and 2010 were the others) Madrid Open later on in the tournament.
With Nadal surging and Federer struggling, things might get worse for the Swiss star before they get better. ESPN's Chris Fowler was one of the many to note how rare it was to see Federer lose a match like this—and that Nadal's odds just went way up:
Chris Fowler @cbfowler
No one. No one saw Nishikori dismissing Federer 6-2 in the 3rd. Great win for him. Rafa is about 1-5 odds vs the field to win title.2013-5-9 16:48:25
Nadal's odds for the French Open just went up, too.
With Federer and Djokovic reeling after losses in Madrid and Nadal reaching the finals in all six of the tournaments he's played so far, the feeling around tennis is that Nadal won't be in the No. 5 spot in the world rankings for much longer.
For someone like Federer to even sniff stopping him at the French Open, he'll have to have a quick turnaround. The first round of the French Open is scheduled to begin on May 26, and that gives Federer little time for a tournament that has been the bane of his major tournament existence in his otherwise stellar career.
Federer has just one win (2009) at the French Open, and three different times (2004, 2006, 2007) a loss at the event limited him from completing the rare four-tournament sweep. He's been to the finals five different times, but many of those losses came to Nadal.
He did nothing in Madrid to convince us he's ready to change his fortunes in 2013.
Federer is clearly one of tennis' greatest all-time stars. His legacy has been cemented over and over at major events, and he showed us last year at Wimbledon that his best tennis is not yet over. However, Wimbledon and the French Open are two different events, and FedEx is a different star on clay than he is on grass.
The Madrid Open was a reminder of that fact, and could spell trouble for any kind of long-term success at the French Open later this year.