Roger Federer’s face openly communicated the disappointment and frustration he felt after losing to Rafael Nadal Friday in the quarterfinals of the Western & Southern Open (5-7, 6-4, 6-3). He shook hands with Nadal and exchanged a perfunctory congratulation before quickly exiting the court.
Federer, at age 32, is probably at the low point of his career in terms of confidence in his game.
He has won only one title this year at a second-tier tournament (Gerry Weber Open), and he has dropped out of the top four for the first time since July 2003. More importantly, Fed has not performed well in the Slams in 2013, and if he fails to win the U.S. Open next month, it will be only the second time in 10 years that he has failed to win a Slam in an entire calendar year.
Nevertheless, Federer needs to focus on the positives from his run at Cincinnati and his three-setter with Nadal.
For at least one set, Roger Federer looked like the Roger Federer of old. There was a spring in his step, and he dictated play, creating unbelievable shots from all sides of the court. His groundstrokes were as crisp as ever, and he surprised Nadal with incredible shot-making from the backhand wing. The cross-court backhand he ripped for a winner on set point was emblematic of the set.
During the couple of moments when trouble seemed to loom on the horizon during his service games, Federer summoned his best serves like he so oft did four or five years ago. He finally broke Nadal at 5-5 and took the set 7-5.
Then something changed in the second set.
Maybe he was tired, or maybe he no longer felt the fire in his belly, but all of a sudden, Federer started to look like an old guy. He seemed a step behind on several points, and he didn’t seem to have the same zip on his forehand.
After losing the set, 6-4, things deteriorated further in the third. His first-serve percentage dropped and, perhaps most tellingly, Federer failed to hit a single winner in the final set.
Maybe a little more conditioning in the next couple of weeks will help Federer maintain his level of play over the course of a longer match. My suspicion is, however, Federer needs to regain that fierce competitiveness and cockiness that led him to 17 Grand Slam titles.
Perhaps if he reviews his stellar opening set against Nadal in Cincinnati, he will realize that he still can play at the highest level in the world for more than one set.