It’s official: Roger Federer, once the keeper of Swiss precision time, has been reduced to an anachronism.
As another Slam opportunity slips past Federer’s grasp, you grow more and more certain that the era of the great champion is finally at a close. If you were the betting sort, you’d have counted on Novak Djokovic to take Federer down eventually. That it took the Serb so much effort is a credit to Federer, although for a bunch of reasons, the manner of the defeat – incurred despite having held two comfortable matchpoints in the final set – has clearly caused the former world number one much pain.
The loss against Djokovic holds weighty significance: for the first time in almost a decade, the Swiss has failed to win at least one of the four majors in a calendar year. We are of course speaking of the most dominant player over the longest period of tennis history, the one who racked up 16 Slams in under eight years, the one who thrice won three Slams in a calendar year; so it is always sad to witness such a commanding presence confront his own sporting mortality.
For much of his career, Federer had Rafael Nadal to contend with. Now Djokovic’s rise to prominence has just made things a lot harder for him. Federer has rarely faced an opponent more bloody-minded than Nadal. Yet over the past year Djokovic may have reinvented himself as one of the most resilient players ever, with the consequence that the greatest player of all time is playing like the third best player at the fag-end of his own era, which is, believe it or not, a fair reflection of his ranking.
As much as Federer would once gush at his own unbelievable skill during press conferences, he now struggles to come to terms with losses that make little sense to him. How could Djokovic smile while facing down, metaphorically speaking, the barrel of a gun – and then turn things around so swiftly? Federer’s churlish and self-righteous remark about not being able to understand how Djokovic could go for broke at a decisive moment betrays a surprisingly conservative approach to tennis that strives to take luck out of the picture.
And, by the way, as far as that shot is concerned, Federer is plain wrong. It’s worth remembering at any rate that unlike in the scene from Woody Allen’s film, Matchpoint, Djokovic’s forehand swipe didn’t dribble across after pinging the top of the net; it was a good, clean strike that set in motion a more affecting climax to one of the more poignant changing-of-the-guard moments in recent memory.
The thing is Federer places too much faith in his genius. Spoiled by his talent, he imagines those prodigious gifts will last for as long as he plays, simply because he has invested a sizeable portion of time in practice. But not even he can ignore the body’s call to decelerate, and its plea for an extra fraction of a second here and there.
Even more crucially, his opponents have made inroads into his confidence. In the years since Nadal started to establish a lead over Federer (that only kept widening) on the clay courts of Paris, the latter’s one-handed backhand has been slowly deconstructed, dismantled and ultimately disrespected by lesser opponents. That he could win so consistently through all of that stands testament to his extraordinary skill and shotmaking.
Federer being Federer, these days he can still make deep forays at the majors. But men like Juan Martin Del Potro, Robin Soderling, Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga have found ways to knock him over. By 2010, Federer was beginning to look like a spent force, in the sense he couldn’t take even journeymen like Allejandro Falla for granted at Wimbledon, where he had six titles. Little has changed since then.
Against an invigorated Djokovic, who is thriving in all kinds of situations and has clearly forgotten how to lose, he has surrendered two semifinals at the US Open in successive years, having held two matchpoints in both matches.
Time has caught up with Federer and for the first time he has looked like a marginal presence. Next to men like Nadal and Djokovic, Federer looks feeble.
It is difficult to say if Federer remains capable of adding to his already sizeable tally of trophies. This much is certain: these are testing times. While he is still able to perform consistently at a level inaccessible to most mortals, it will be interesting to see if the 30-year-old can summon the experience, the guile and above all the desire that provided a fairy-tale finish to Pete Sampras’s career.
I know I wouldn’t bet against it.