Roger Federer has been a pretty big disappointment through six events in 2014.
His most recent disappointment came on March 26 in the quarterfinals of the Sony Open. In what turned out to be his earliest exit from a tournament in 2014, Federer was defeated in three sets by Kei Nishikori. Federer started strong by winning the first set, but Nishikori bounced back to take the next two and secure the win.
2014 hasn't really been kind to Federer. Aside from winning the Dubai Open, the Swiss star lost the Brisbane International and the BNP Paribas Open in the finals and the Australian Open in the semifinals. Novak Djokovic (BNP Paribas) and Rafael Nadal (Australian Open) got the best of him in two events, but Federer has lost to much lesser competition.
Lleyton Hewitt bested him in Brisbane, and Federer really failed to show up. He hardly made it a competition despite winning the second set.
The loss to Nishikori at the Sony Open is really a cause for concern. Losses to Djokovic and Nadal can be explained. They're two of the best players in the world, after all. But losing to Nishikori is really something that shouldn't happen.
CNN International points out that beating Federer has become a bit of a trend for Nishikori:
He didn't have to save any match points against the Swiss great -- the Japanese No. 1 fended off four of them to oust Ferrer, last year's finalist in Miami -- but Nishikori rallied to beat Federer 36 75 64 under the lights on Stadium court Wednesday.
The 21st-ranked Nishikori has now eliminated Federer twice in a row after upsetting the 32-year-old at the Madrid Masters in three sets last year.
Federer is now the world's No. 4 player, reports SI.com, but he'll need to start playing better to just maintain that ranking. He pointed to why he struggled against Nishikori in a conversation with the ATP's official website, via CNN International:
"I could never really get my service games going. On the return, as the match went on, I think it was that Kei started to serve a bit better, which made it more difficult."
His service game appears to be what has been his downfall lately. Federer is still one of the top players in the sport, but the loss to Nishikori highlighted a problem that can hamper him moving forward.
Having been in the sport long enough, Federer knows when an aspect of his game isn't working. He also knows how to fix any issues he may have.
At this stage in the game, though, it really comes down to how quickly he can make changes. The next time he'll compete is at the Davis Cup in early April. Whether or not he fixes it by then remains to be seen.
If Federer wants to keep up his standing as one of the "Big Four" in the ATP rankings, then he'll need to improve—fast.