With Federer, it's always been a question of when

There was a time in the past, when Roger Federer won the first two sets in a match and the world could go off to sleep, wake up the next morning and read the news of how the Swiss master cantered to another easy victory. It was a given —almost like a rule of nature.

Until Wednesday, Federer had boasted an incredible 178-0 Grand Slam win-loss record when winning the first two sets. His only previous defeats from two sets to love up had come against Lleyton Hewitt in the 2003 Davis Cup final and in the 2005 Masters Cup in Shanghai against David Nalbandian.

Against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on the Centre court, he seemed helpless at times. He managed to earn just one breakpoint in the match. And for the last three sets, he seemed dazed—  almost as if he had been sold a dummy by the Muhammad Ali-lookalike.

“Is it easy for anybody at the moment? I don’t think so,” added Federer as he reflected on his loss against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. “I think it’s pretty tough for anybody right now to win Grand Slams.”

 With Federer, its always been a question of when

Roger Federer reacts as he plays with French player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga during the men's single quarter final at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships at the All England Tennis Club, London. Leon Neal/AFP

We’d like to believe his words as we did when he stood unconquered and unbowed at the top of the world of men’s tennis, brandishing his unique brand of arrogance with disdain. But now, he seems one step away from being broken; one step away from walking away and the only question that remains is: When.

With Federer, it’s always been a question of when. His talent even as a junior was never in doubt. If anything, people found fault with his temperament. His talent was real, still is. So even to begin with, it wasn’t about whether he would fade away like so many junior champions before him. It was always about when he would emerge from his cocoon.

Wimbledon, 2001
That’s when the dream became a reality. Pete Sampras was royalty at the All England Tennis Club. With seven Wimbledon titles against his name, the American knew what it took to win and he was armed with the best serve the world had ever seen. Against this machine, standing at the other end, was a 19-year-old precocious talent from Switzerland. The only other Swiss player the world had heard of before him was Marc Rosset, Olympic Champion and server of missiles. Was an upset expected? No. But it did happen -- 6–7(7), 7–5, 4–6, 7–6(2), 5–7 in the fourth round, ending Sampras's 31-match winning streak at Wimbledon. The match also marked the first and only time that the two men ever played each other on the ATP tour. It was a perfect passing of the baton.

In 2003, Federer had won his first Grand Slam, his first and only doubles Masters Series 1000 event with Max Mirnyi, won seven titles on the ATP tour and even beat Andre Agassi in the season-ending championships. The optimistic spectators, sensing a new world order in the making, starting asking the question: When will he become the world number one? There were no ifs in that argument.

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Australian Open, 2004
When he won Down Under, it elevated him to world number one. It was like a big liberation for him. It was a long cherished dream coming true. As a 15-year-old at the Swiss National Tennis Centre at Ecublens, he had to write down his sporting goals. While others wanted to "turn professional" or "make the top 100", Federer said he wanted to "break the top ten and then become number one". After winning the Australian Open, he said that at that point he could have stopped playing since he had achieved everything he wanted. Everything that has happened since then has been like a bonus for him. And it was quite a big bonus. He celebrated by becoming the first man since Mats Wilander in 1988 to win three Grand Slams.

Roger Federer returns the ball to French player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga during the men's single quarter final at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships at the All England Tennis Club, London.

Roger Federer returns the ball to French player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga during the men's single quarter final at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships at the All England Tennis Club, London. Leon Neal/AFP Photo

But then without a worthy challenger, even the greats seem pretty normal. There’s no one to push them; there’s nobody to stretch them; there’s nothing that will make them seek a higher plain. As Federer’s domination became absolute, the line of thinking veered towards the lack of a creditable challenger. When would he find a rival? For Borg there was McEnroe, Navratilova had Evert, Becker had Edberg, Sampras and Agassi. It was time for the cheese to find its chalk.

Welcome 2005 and Nadal
Federer first ran into Nadal in 2004. The Spaniard was just 18, 4 years and 10 months younger than the Swiss star but the quality was there and so was hope. They didn’t let us down. Federer and Nadal are the only pair of men to have finished six consecutive calendar years as the top two ranked players on the ATP Tour, from 2005-2010. It was a rivalry that had many great moments, none greater than Wimbledon 2008 – the world stood and applauded both, the victor and the vanquished. Each had scaled a new summit.

But for Roger, it strangely seemed like he had reached a peak. 2007 had seen him reach all four Grand Slam finals. He remained a good, no great player but he ceased to be the best. That mantle was now Nadal’s to wear and flaunt. It still takes something special to beat Federer, he still breezes through the first few rounds, he still has the faint vestiges of arrogance lurking in that silky smooth forehand but now, with each passing match, the end seems near. Every tournament brings the same questions: Is it over for Federer?

The defeat against Tsonga was unthinkable a few years ago simply because once Federer was two sets up, he would bring out all his shots and really enjoy himself. And then his opponent would know that it was over. Now, they sense a chance, a weakness and they push; they push as hard as they can with the hope of fracturing yet another mental muscle in Federer's injured psyche.

With every tournament, more players seem to be winning that battle and just how much more will the Swiss star be able to take? In his post-match conference, Nadal said he felt sorry for Federer and that is a classic sympathy line -- when your rival starts feeling sorry for you -- every great would love to avoid. Indeed, now, more than ever, it’s not a question of why but of when.

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Updated Date: Jun 30, 2011 18:55:14 IST

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