Another major gone by, another opportunity missed by Roger Federer.
This has become a predictable pattern for the 17-time Grand Slam champion in the the latter stages of his career. A draw opens up a bit—meaning Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal aren't immediately in his path—and it looks like a deep run to the final, or perhaps the title, are in store.
But instead of taking advantage, Federer hits another roadblock—typically against a talented player he has dominated in the past—and the legend falters.
On Tuesday at the French Open, Federer fell to his countryman Stan Wawrinka, whom he had a 16-2 head-to-head advantage over before the match, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 in the quarterfinals.
Despite the fact Federer was placed on the easy half of the draw, away from Nadal, Andy Murray and Djokovic, he is still leaving Paris on the early side.
On a gusty day in Paris, Federer failed to find his form, misfiring often and growing increasingly frustrated as the match wore on. Federer was broken three times, and couldn't capitalize on any of the four break points he had on Wawrinka's serve, either.
"I was not going to leave the French Open without having tried everything out there," Federer, 33, said. "Stan was clutch on the big points and really didn't give me much, so it was a credit to him for playing so well today."
This loss isn't necessarily a reason to hit the panic button or send Federer into retirement—Wimbledon is on the horizon, after all, and Federer did make it to the final there last year. Plus, Wawrinka played remarkably well.
However, it's hard not to wonder how many openings at Slams remain for the 33-year-old.
Federer has now failed to reach the French Open final since 2011, when he upset Djokovic in the semis. In 2012 he lost to Djokovic in the semis in straight sets at Roland Garros, in 2013 he was crushed by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarters, and last year he was upset by Ernests Gulbis in the fourth round.
Since Federer won Wimbledon in 2012 for his 17th major title, he has only made it back to one other major final: Wimbledon last year. In that span of 11 majors, what's most notable isn't that he lost, but that he lost to inferior competition. Only three of those losses came against members of the Big Four—a defeat to Murray in five sets in the 2013 Australian Open semifinals, a defeat to Nadal in straights in the 2014 Australian Open semifinals and the loss to Djokovic in last year's Wimbledon final in five sets.
Other than that, losses to guys like Sergiy Stakhovsky in the second round of Wimbledon 2013, Tommy Robredo in the fourth round of the 2013 U.S. Open and Andreas Seppi in the third round of this year's Australian Open really stick out. Federer built a legacy on taking care of guys like them in the biggest moments, but now nothing is a sure thing.
With age, the gears get worn down, and it's clear Federer's next gear isn't always within reach.
Look, Federer wasn't the favorite at this tournament—that spot will rightly go to the winner of the Djokovic vs. Nadal quarterfinal match on Wednesday. It's still hard not to think this was one of his last great shots to get back to the French Open final, and now it's gone.
The what-might-have-beens for Federer and his fans are hard to ignore at this point in his career. The most painful of all might have been his missed chance at the U.S. Open last year, where he fell to Marin Cilic in the semis and missed a chance to face Kei Nishikori in a Grand Slam final. Big hitters who are hitting their marks are becoming Federer's kryptonite, a puzzle he can no longer solve without assistance.
Still, the fact he is getting close at times, and the fact he's still the No. 2-ranked player in the world, is reason enough to keep thinking another miraculous moment remains in Federer's illustrious career.
"It would be unbelievable, no doubt," Federer said about winning an 18th Slam, as reported by Greg Garber of ESPN.com. "Clearly, those thoughts also creep into my mind sometimes and go, 'How would that feel again?' Then again, you're like, 'Whew, let's not go that far down the tournament yet.'"
And that's the key—old habits are hard to break, and it's still so hard not to automatically advance Federer in the draw when he's not playing another legend of the game.
But there's enough of a sample size now to know better. Federer is still a great player, and this is not a call for any doom-and-gloom, it's-all-over-now talk.
Rather, it's a plea for some perspective. In a two-week span, in a best-of-five setting and against players who know he is beatable these days, Federer is no longer an immovable force. He's merely one of many talented players who can win or lose on any given day.
Federer's consistency and staying power in tennis are phenomenal, but he's no longer Mr. Automatic. It's still safe to hope, but perhaps it's time to throw expectations out the window.