Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was this magician from Switzerland who came down to London and used his racket as a wand every summer from the first Monday to the last Sunday of the Wimbledon fortnight.
Roger Federer was immune from whatever surprises the tennis world generated and made it a habit to be present on those two days from his first title in 2003 to 2009. In seven years he won six championships and his only loss in 2008 was hailed as the greatest tennis match of all time.
Over these years, Federer produced some breathtaking tennis and orchestrated escapes that would have made Houdini proud. This year, though, Federer looked like any mortal tennis player. There was no magic about him. He managed to escape the ignominy of losing in the first round when he came back from two sets down against unheralded Columbian Alejandro Falla.
The magic of Federer has been fading for a while now but his fourth round defeat at Centre Court to Czech Tomas Berdych signifies a new low. Berdych played an almost perfect match and had Federer on the defence for the better part of four sets.
Federer had his chances but he wasn’t allowed to take them. On more than an occasion he took the game from being 0-40 down on the Berdych serve to deuce but could not break.
Then there was an opening that Berdych provided by making two double faults in one game, but Federer did not have what over the years has been known as his other gear and Berdych held on.
In the Australian Open in 2009, Federer had come back from being two sets down to Berdych in the fourth round. Federer had won eight in a row against Berdych before the match in Melbourne and Berdych had a solitary win going back to the Athens Olympics in 2004.
Then Tomas Berdych found a way to win and this year in Miami he beat the Swiss 6-4, 6-7, 7-6 in the round of 16 after saving a match point on Federer’s serve in the third set tie-break.
Just like Falla earlier Berdych attacked the Federer backhand and went around his returns to hit scorching forehand winners. The main weapon of Federer, his forehand, repeatedly let him down as he missed returns that a few summers ago he may have hit with his eyes closed.
Kevin Mitchell of the Guardian wrote, “Only Roger Federer and Tiger Woods among great athletes of modern times have had the aura to survive slumps and still be regarded as dangerous until they are scraped off the canvas.
"That, sadly, is no longer true in either case.
"As Federer leaves Wimbledon, his back, right leg, and heart aching, he must wonder if he can continue to absorb as much punishment as he once did, to his spirit as well as a body unused to such failings.
"He was a god reduced, a humbled champion, and he has not been so despondent after a defeat in a very long time. He struggled and failed to hide his inner torment.
"He is still hungry. 'I can’t wait for Paris and Wimbledon to come around next year,' he said, defiantly. But he is angry too—angry at himself for being mortal and angry at suggestions he is not as great as he has been for nearly a decade. But defeat sent him tumbling to third in the world, a position of relative ordinariness he has not experienced since 2003.”
Federer’s problems began in 2008 when Rafael Nadal literally blasted him on the red clay of Paris and then snatched his Wimbledon crown. There was consolation, though, as Federer came back from two sets down to level the match and the fight in the fifth set ended in near darkness.
Order was restored when Federer won the US Open at the end of 2008. He then reached the final of the Australian Open in 2009 and lost for the third time in a final to Nadal in less than a year. The rest of the year was productive as Federer won his first French Open title and won his sixth Wimbledon crown.
He went past Pete Sampras at the All England Club where past legends were watching from the stands. He lost the US Open to Del Potro but 2009 was a very successful year for him as he reached all four Grand Slam finals and won two of them. Federer then silenced his critics by winning the Australian Open in 2010.
Then came what he and others called a lean period rather than a worrying stretch: no tournament wins in five months. Soderling crushed him in Paris and even Lleyton Hewitt beat him in Halle two weekends ago on grass.
Mitchell wrote in his blog piece, "'This is really amazing for me,' Berdych said. It was just as amazing for everyone fortunate to witness one of sport’s most dramatic moments, and perhaps a tidemark in the career of not only the Czech but the legend he dismantled.
'I don’t think I played poorly,' Federer said. 'He went after it.' But he did play—if not poorly—without his familiar excellence.
"The Swiss is often perceived as so good he does not have to fight, which is wholly inaccurate. There is calm in his soul that disguises his determination. But injury has dented his body; we will discover in the months to come if the hurt goes deeper.”
The act of a magician has three parts: the first is a pledge, then comes the turn, and the success of the trick relies on the third part called the prestige. Roger Federer has done it before, having gone through the turn he has restored his magic by conjuring a prestige on many occasions.
This time it is a sharp turn and a prestige looks highly-unlikely. On his part, Federer can take consolation from the fact that all great magic is in achieving the highly-improbable.