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Federer Loss Doesn't Feel Like an Upset

NEW YORK - The tennis gods have played a cruel trick on New York fans once again, for it now appears that Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer will never play a match at the US Open.

In 2010 and 2011, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Nadal and Federer would finally stage a Grand Slam final in Gotham. But in both of those years, Novak Djokovic came up with miracle shots in the semifinals against Federer, dashing the hopes of millions of fans.

And this year it seemed a sure thing that a Federer-Nadal quarterfinal tussle (quarterfinals? … still better than nothing …) would take place in Queens, even if a significant amount of the drama has been drained out of their meetings as Nadal has dominated Federer for the last six years. There was nary an obstacle in front of either player en route to a destined meeting in the final eight.

But such supposition was a foolish exercise if one had considered Federer’s recent past; he lost in the second round at Wimbledon to the unknown and decidedly unheralded Sergei Stakhovsky and was also straight-setted at the French Open by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

So going into Sunday evening’s rain-delayed round of 16 encounter against Tommy Robredo – a player Federer owned a 10-0 record against - it would have been wise to consider that an upset was at least possible. But no one saw it coming. And I can bet that no one on the planet foresaw a straight set (7-6, 6-3, 6-4) victory for Robredo. 

Though Federer would say afterwards, in a surprisingly candid and somewhat relaxed press conference, “I beat myself” and “I self-destructed,” it was apparent from the start of the match that Robredo had a game plan against Federer. The key component of which was to step back on the second serve, giving him an edge on such points. It was a strategy that Federer never quite adjusted to and it allowed Robredo to sustain a surprisingly aggressive stance from the backcourt throughout the match.

And Federer never altered his game plan throughout the match. Which is even more telling. Because Federer thrived for so many years on his preternatural, and seemingly predestined, ability to hit a tennis ball, his in-match adjustments have always seemed lacking. The best example of which is that he’s never been able to counter the patented Nadal formula of high balls struck to his backhand side.

So it wasn’t a matter so much of physically self-destructing against a game Robredo; rather it was the mental sort, where the one-time maestro continued to show his increasingly fatal flaw – that of not admitting that his days playing top-flight tennis are coming to a rapid conclusion.

Sunday night was yet another example of Federer’s refusal – or inability – to change his game plan. Stubbornness is an absolutely essential ingredient in the personality makeup of a genius – be it artistic, athletic, or scientific. Yet is this same stubbornness that can rear its ugly head at the end of sports careers. And Federer is clearly now going through such a stage.

By refusing to admit that he’s a step slower or his reactions are that much more delayed at his “old” age of 32, Federer is putting himself in a corner. And one wonders when he’ll realize that the manner in which he was accustomed to winning Slam events is no longer valid. 

If Federer is to have that one last chance at Slam glory (which I personally think is impossible; his 2012 Wimbledon triumph was his glorious last hurrah), he’ll have to recalibrate his game significantly.

The amazing thing is that Federer has the luxury of actually owning two alternative game plans – that of the grinding all-court player who patiently waits out points, summing the best of his clay court abilities; or the player who reacts against convention and attacks the net constantly, forcing his opponents to come up with passing shots on a regular basis.

But because Federer is so wonderfully multi-talented he seems utterly confused as to how to approach his fading relevance. Though it may sound harsh, this is the conundrum: he is undoubtedly one of a handful of players that has to be considered among the finest to have ever played the game – yet his insistence on continuing to maintain that he can win another major is increasingly delusional and takes away from his legacy. 

Federer can, and should, play for as long as he wants. But to continue to assert that he’s “so close” to his prior self is delusional. And the more he loses early in Slams, the more scrutiny will be paid to the fact that, unlike Nadal, Federer didn’t know what to do when his best wasn’t good enough. 

Award-winning columnist Tim Joyce provides occasional commentary for RealClearSports. Email: joyce.timothy@gmail.com

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