NEW YORK — Suddenly, Roger Federer looked older. It wasn’t so much the creases in his face, the age lines. It was the creases in his game. It was the inability to handle Marin Cilic, to whom he never before had lost.
It was the comments after his defeat, the lack of belief to do what he had done for so many matches over so many years, which is make a comeback.
Federer was a lock to make the final of this U.S. Open. The day the draw came out, that’s what we heard. That’s what we wrote.
No road in a Grand Slam tennis tournament is without potholes, obstacles. Every one of those 128 people in a Slam is a consummate professional, a player who at his best or your worst can knock you out.
Yet, at his age, at this stage—and maybe considering he had five victories here, the Broadway of tennis—this Open highway seemed like a thoroughfare for Federer.
He would be there at the end, facing Novak Djokovic in the final. Or so we thought. And he thought.
Djokovic didn’t make it, stunned Saturday by Kei Nishikori. Federer didn’t make either, ripped in straight sets, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4, in his semifinal by Cilic.
The great chance, with Rafael Nadal not in the tournament and with nobody higher than a 14th seed—that would be Cilic—as an opponent, instead most likely became, at age 33, Federer’s last chance for that 18th Slam.
Father Time keeps sneaking up. So do people such as Cilic, 24, or Nishikori, 24. Nadal is 28. Djokovic is 27. They figure to be in the mix for a good while. Federer does not.
Experience counts in tennis. Speed and quickness count more. It’s a tough time when the mind realizes what the body no longer can accomplish, when the player grasps the awful idea he isn’t the man he used to be, that shots he once reached now go screaming by him.
It all played out on the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium. Cilic, who was 0-5 against Federer—but took him to three sets a couple of weeks ago in Toronto, which may have been telling—not only pounded Federer with his serve, 13 aces, but outplayed him from the backcourt.
Two nights earlier, Federer was down two sets to Gael Monfils and won, as much due to Monfils’ shakiness as Federer’s consistency. So when similarly he was in a 2-0 hole against Cilic, the sellout crowd of more than 23,000 pleaded for Federer to produce. He couldn’t. The fans were bereft. So was Federer.
“I wasn’t as confident this time,” he conceded, “because Marin played more aggressive. He was serving huge. From that standpoint I knew that margins were slim, even though I still believed in my chance.
“I knew this comeback would be tougher, because of the risk he was taking, how big he was serving.”
But Andy Roddick served big. Djokovic serves big. Against them, Federer returned serve adroitly, expertly—not Saturday against Cilic. He almost seemed resigned, acknowledging his days of winning Slams—Federer’s taken only one of the last 19, the 2012 Wimbledon—were at an end.
“I’m really disappointed,” said Federer, “after how well I played this season, especially here also at the tournament. I really felt like I could win the tournament. Obviously, that’s not going to happen.”
And here, at Flushing Meadows, or at the Australian, French Open or Wimbledon, surely it’s never again going to happen. He already changed his training routine, already altered his tactics. He can’t make himself 25 again.
Federer made a marvelous run at Wimbledon this summer, on the grass where he always played spectacularly starting in 2001, reaching the final against Djokovic. In retrospect, it was more an aberration than an indication.
Where do the summers go? One day you’re the kid headed for greatness. Then in the figurative blink of an eye, you’re the veteran, with a family of four children, who is trying to turn the past into the future.
No Federer, no Djokovic, no Nadal, no Andy Murray...it's a Slam final without any of these players for the first time since the 2005 Australian Open. Change is inevitable in sport. Whatever happened to Pete Sampras or Andre Agassi? Soon we’ll be asking whatever happened to Roger Federer.
In the last year or so, three times Federer was beaten in three straight sets in Slams. Now the number is four, and it’s justified to ask whether his number is up. Whether in the biggest events of tennis he’ll merely be an entrant instead of a contender.
“I’ll give it a go in Australia,” he insisted, meaning the Australian Open, the next Grand Slam, far off in January. “It’s been one of my most consistent Slams. I hope, you know, I get another chance at it. I can’t do more than really try hard, which I am doing.”
What he can’t do is stop the clock from ticking, and so he was asked whether a final without any of the Big Four meant a new generation was taking over.
“You create your stories,” was Federer’s response. “You said the same in Australia. Then we know what happened at the French Open final, Wimbledon final. But this is another chance for you guys (in the press). So you should write what you want.”
What we don’t want is to see the decline of Roger Federer, but it’s underway. He was all but awarded a place in the final of the U.S. Open but was unable to accept it.
Art Spander, an award-winning columnist, has covered more than 50 Grand Slams in his career. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.