Roger Federer lost to No. 55 Daniel Brands 6-3, 6-4 on Thursday at the Swiss Open, his first opening-round loss since 2010. This was the third consecutive tournament in which Federer lost to a player ranked outside the top 50 and the first time since 2007 that he was bounced from an event without winning a set.
The defeat came on the heels of a semifinal loss at the German Tennis Championships last week, the other tournament that Federer added to his schedule after a second-round loss at Wimbledon.
Here are three thoughts thoughts on Federer's continued slump and what it means for the rest of the season:
• Federer's improvised schedule backfired: After losing to No. 116 Sergiy Stakhovsky at Wimbledon, Federer decided to play back-to-back clay-court tournaments in Germany and Switzerland while the other top players were resting and gearing up for the North American hard-court season. He said he wanted to play matches, try out a new racket and return to the tournaments at which he had good memories -- he made his ATP debut at Gstaad in 1998, and Hamburg was the site of his first ATP Masters 1000 title, in 2002.
Federer must have thought he could get in a good number of matches by playing against these weakened fields, maybe bagging a title or two along the way to boost his confidence. These tournaments would be a low-stakes environment to fiddle with his new stick, and the two weeks wouldn't tax him physically because clay is easier on the body.
That sounded OK in theory -- I say "OK" instead of "good" because the schedule shuffle is still a mild head-scratcher to me -- but a few matches into his Hamburg campaign, Federer clearly was dealing with a back injury and, as is his wont, he played through it without much complaint. After losing to Federico Delbonis in the Hamburg semifinals, where he played with visible kinesio tape on his lower back, Federer should have shut it down and pulled out of Gstaad. But Federer probably didn't feel like he could let down the tournament, and chose to honor his commitment to the small Swiss event (and he was rewarded with a cow). That's an honorable and gentlemanly thing to do, but it wasn't the best decision as an athlete who's trying to break out of a slump.
“Clearly I’ve been asking myself questions of how can I get out of, I wouldn’t call it a slump because I did win Halle in between, and I know that the game’s just around the corner,” Federer said before Gstaad.
That's what Federer's season has been reduced to, using Halle, an ATP 250 event on grass, as the only notable result of his season.
“It’s just important that I take the right decisions, how to move forward from here and then how I bounce back, because usually when things don’t go so well I find a way, and that’s what I’m looking for right now,” he added.
Now, instead of walking away with improved confidence in himself and his equipment, Federer gets to manage a lower-back injury with his busy hard-court season less than two weeks away.
• On to hard courts: In preparation for the U.S. Open, Federer is scheduled to play two ATP Masters 1000 events back-to-back: the Rogers Cup in Montreal and the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, where he's the defending champion. If Federer is truly ailing, don't be surprised if he opts to skip Montreal -- he hasn't won the event since 2006 -- so he can heal, get extra days of practice at home and mount a good defense in Cincinnati.
A title run in Hamburg might have given him a chance to overtake Rafael Nadal for the No. 4 ranking -- and thus the No. 4 seed at the U.S. Open -- but it seems unlikely now. He could face Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray or Nadal in the U.S. Open quarterfinals.
Federer is a streaky player; if he can get on a roll on the hard courts, he's as dangerous as anyone in New York. But until his back issues are solved, it's hard to have much confidence in his ability to find his best game in the next two months. Federer needs to serve well to reassert his domination on hard courts, and as we saw in Hamburg, he just can't get the flex in his back right now. The hard courts are going to be even tougher on his body.
On top of the Federer's issues of health, confidence and equipment, there'a also his tarnished aura in the locker room. Players know he's more vulnerable now than ever, and they're relishing the chance to beat him. Drawing Federer in the first or second round of a tournament isn't a guaranteed loss anymore. If he's not 100 percent fit, it will be tough for him to turn that around.
• A new set of milestones for Federer: In the past, it was necessary to have a record book at the ready whenever Federer took the court in order to put his greatness in context on a near-weekly basis. Nowadays, I find myself constantly searching through his career results in order to see just how bad his recent string of losses are.
With just one ATP 250 title and one semifinal appearance at a Grand Slam tournament this year, it's safe to say that Federer is in the midst of his worst season in more than a decade. The last time he recorded three losses in a row against players ranked outside the top 50 was in 1999, when he was 18 years old, ranked below No. 100 and still playing Challenger events.
However, if anyone can turn things around, it's Federer. In 2011, he came into the North American hard-court season with just one ATP 250 title (Doha) and fresh off a quarterfinal loss to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at Wimbledon, but he finished the year on a 17-match winning streak through the fall indoor season. That run set him up for his return to No. 1 in 2012 after winning his 17th major at Wimbledon.