A week after starting out his Roland Garros campaign with an emphatic win, Roger Federer went crashing out of the tournament in five sets to No. 18 Ernests Gulbis in the fourth round 6-7(5), 7-6(3), 6-2, 4-6, 6-3.
It was Federer's first time losing a five-set match at the French Open (he was previously 6-0) and his first time losing before the French Open quarterfinals in nine years. It also marked the third time in the last four majors that Federer has lost before the quarterfinals, with the only exception being the Australian Open earlier this year.
There's no use sugarcoating it: Roger Federer is getting old, and he is not the tennis player he once was. On his good days, he can still challenge the best in the world, but those days aren't as easy to summon as they once were.
The Latvian Gulbis, who made the wrong kind of headlines this week with his misguided comments about women playing tennis, has always been a danger in draws. The 25-year-old made the quarterfinals of the French Open when he was only 19 years old, and has career wins over Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro. He won a title in Nice just last week and was in good form coming into the match.
However, Gulbis has been unreliable at best throughout his career, and he's known for melting when the going gets tough. Federer had an early lead and multiple chances to take full control of the match, yet he never could stay ahead. He seemed particularly rattled by an off-court medical timeout that Gulbis took at the end of the fourth set, and he ended up fading rather quickly in the fifth.
Afterwards, ATPWorldTour.com reported that Federer didn't try and hide his disappointment in the outcome of the match.
I'm clearly very disappointed not to come through with the win. After the chance in the second set, fighting back in the fourth, not to play a better fifth set. There are a lot of regrets here now. But I think Gulbis did a good job of hanging around and clearly coming back in that second set was crucial for him, I think. It was a tough match and I'm disappointed I lost it.
While most people singled out the MTO in the fourth as the time when Federer began to unravel, Matt Zemek of Bloguin's Attacking the Net zeroed in on a turning point earlier in the match. Federer had taken the first set in a tiebreaker, and was up 5-3, 40-15 in the second. He had two points to gain a two-sets-to-love lead. But on his first set point, Federer botched an overhead—a shot he is usually very comfortable with—and went on to be broken, and then lose the set in a tiebreaker.
Zemek suggests that it's not so much the overhead miss that hurt Federer's chances at winning this match, but how he responded to the miss. Federer lost confidence in himself and his game after the miss, and he allowed the usually erratic Gulbis right back into the game.
Federer failed to win the 5-3, 40-15 point that could have made his day so much easier — and ultimately successful — but the even bigger story from his perspective is that he didn’t handle the outcome of the 5-3, 40-15 point the way he had in his prime. In 2011 and again in 2014, Federer’s mind — just as vulnerable to an athlete’s aging process as the body, which is what betrayed the Swiss in 2013 — didn’t hold firm in a moment of opportunity.
Zemek rightly points out that the aging process is not solely a physical one. Throughout Federer's career, he has been blessed with an abundance of talent and health. Due, of course, to the hard work he put in off of the court to get his body into the proper condition, he had complete faith in his body and his game when matches became tight.
These days, however, due to the inevitable toll that 1,176 ATP-level matches have taken on him, and the fact that he's 32 years old with nearly 15 full seasons on the ATP Tour under his belt, he simply isn't as good of a tennis player as he was during his prime. He is painfully aware of that.
In the span of his career, Federer's lack of faith in his physical abilities is still relatively new. It affects his confidence and causes him to doubt his instincts and abilities in situations when he used to unequivocally believe.
Those slight moments of hesitations—the ones that used to be as rare as unicorns in Federer's matches—are now always one bad point away. That causes him to lose tight matches (such as this one) or fail to get himself back into matches (such as his loss to Tommy Robredo in last year's US Open).
Federer is still a very, very good tennis player. He is currently ranked No. 4 in the world, he's 28-6 with one title and three finals this year and he's won over $2 million in prize money in 2014 alone. Gosh, I was even talking about him as a sleeper pick earlier in the tournament. It would not shock me if he has one more magical run to a major title left in him, especially at Wimbledon, where he feels the most at home.
But Federer is no longer a sure thing. He knows it, his opponents know it and it's time for us to accept it as well. It's hard to watch, and even harder to process, but even the G.O.A.T. can't outrun Father Time.