More than just an unsettling defeat, Roger Federer's U.S. Open departure was unraveling. We've grown accustomed to seeing the great man in shambles, erratic to the point of concern, but Federer's Labor Day loss to Tommy Robredo was downright disturbing.
John McEnroe, calling the match for ESPN, couldn't believe what he was seeing. The 7-6 (3), 6-3, 6-4 scores told a pretty clear story, but they couldn't illustrate Federer's futility -- and apparent lack of concentration -- on the points that mattered most. In a match littered with meaningful statistics, most telling was Federer's 2-for-16 performance on break points.
It had been a day full of anticipation. As the fourth-round match was moved to the intimate Louis Armstrong Stadium, due to an afternoon rain delay, fans hustled to the scene with hopes of watching Federer earn himself a spot in the quarterfinals against Rafael Nadal. It would have been the first match between the two storied rivals at Flushing Meadows, after 31 career meetings elsewhere, and Serena Williams' reaction to learning that statistic captured it well: "Really? That's weird."
After Federer's loss, one has to wonder if it will ever happen.
If you're looking for some kind of Federer obituary, search elsewhere. Pundits will be writing him off worldwide in the wake of this defeat, but Federer, at 32, isn't the type to acknowledge the aging process or adopt some sort of rocking-chair mentality. He hasn't played his last great match by any means. Pete Sampras can relate, telling reporters at last year's U.S. Open, "I kept going because I felt I had it in me. Even though most people in the tennis world wrote me off, great players believe in themselves. They just feel they're better than anyone."
As for the better player Monday night, here's a toast to Robredo. Every bit as determined and fit as countrymen Nadal and David Ferrer, Robredo has revitalized his career at 31. Forever on the outskirts of Grand Slam relevance, and never past the fourth round at the U.S. Open, he has shrugged off retirement to work even harder -- and behold the results.
There wasn't a single element of good luck to the Spaniard's victory. He played with a flourish, lashing out on both wings and never offering a hint of anxiety, as in, "Oh, my God -- this is Federer. I can't keep this up." He'd been 0-10 lifetime against Federer, but forget the past; this is a new era for anyone seeking the big upset.
"The problem for Federer right now is that the aura is a little bit less than it's been," Jim Courier said on Tennis Channel on Sunday night. "And that makes him vulnerable at the beginning of matches. He used to come onto the court and he was already up a break. Now players feel like there's a real opportunity."
Adding to opponents' confidence, said Courier, is the fact that Federer felt compelled to try a bigger racket head earlier this summer -- a dramatic switch from 90 to 98 square inches -- only to revert to the original after some discouraging results.
"When you do things like switching rackets midseason," Courier said, "you're sending a strong signal to the locker room that you're uncertain."
Even with his time-tested Wilson in hand, Federer was decidedly tentative during the match, particularly when it came to rushing the net. On the point that gave Robredo a 5-3 lead in the first-set tiebreaker, Federer came in late behind a backhand, setting up a blistering Robredo passing shot that Federer couldn't handle with a backhand volley. On the next point, Federer inexplicably decided to come in behind a second serve; Robredo, with time to run around his backhand, crushed a cross-court forehand winner -- and then closed out the set with an ace.
By the middle of the second set, Federer was missing routine forehands so badly, it bordered on the bizarre.
"Incredible, how loose a game he's played here," McEnroe said as Robredo broke at love for 5-3. "It's hard to believe, watching this." Added play-by-play man Chris Fowler, "It's almost inconceivable he could miss the forehand that badly."
With Robredo serving out the set at 5-3 and deuce, Federer charged the net behind a sliced backhand approach and got roundly passed. And as that set came to a close, it was Federer netting a sliced backhand approach. In the realm of bad ideas, this was Leonard Bernstein tarnishing an orchestral arrangement with a kazoo solo.
Traditionally undaunted by an early setback, Federer was becoming unrecognizable. It was extremely disappointing to see him join the crowd of phony bathroom-breakers, leaving the court for nearly eight minutes in an attempt to change the mood.
"It takes eight minutes to change your shirt?" McEnroe said in disgust.
"It was a whole outfit change," analyst Darren Cahill said.
"Should take a minute and a half," McEnroe said.
Meanwhile, on the ESPN studio set, Chris Evert joined the ranks of the appalled. Federer had gone 0-for-6 on break points in the second set.
"He's not focusing," she said. "He's like, going on walkabout. When he gets those chances, he's gotta jump on them."
And why is this happening, wondered host Hannah Storm?
"Why? He's at the end of his career," Evert said. "And these players are challenging him. Every single point, they're more intense."
As the match went on, my mind drifted back to the 2006 U.S. Open, when Tiger Woods made it a point to attend Federer's final against Andy Roddick. Woods, an athlete at the very top of his game, sat courtside to watch his tennis counterpart in what turned out to be a signature performance. They met for the first time before the match and spent some time together afterward, two authentic sporting geniuses sharing a bit of champagne in a private room, and one could only imagine the conversation. That was a sporting summit conference for the ages.
Seven years later, we find both of them tormented by self-doubt. They often look the same, even brilliant, but when it comes to that big point, that crucial putt, the mind is playing tricks -- particularly at the major events. Tiger's three-footer curls out. Federer's forehand put-away sails five feet long. And the foundation of mystique comes crashing down.
Sampras had it right: The great ones do not surrender. They forge on, often with that commanding presence that once left the world in awe. Crowds flock to the occasion, more appreciative than ever. But it won't be quite the same. It can't be. Time is the ultimate opponent, always in character, never vanquished.