independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Federer bites the dust as more stars feel the heat

Roger Federer argues with the umpire during his men's singles tennis match against Sergiy Stakhovsky

And so the giants continue to tumble. If it was a shock to see a brittle and damaged Rafael Nadal depart from Wimbledon, what are we to make of a fully-fit Roger Federer stumbling out in the second round to a man ranked 116 in the world?

How are we to react to the news that, with the tournament barely under way, Andy Murray's principal opponent on his side of the draw is now seeded 15? It is unprecedented. All around the All England Club the natural order is tumbling.

Yesterday alone, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga retired on his stool and seven former world no 1s bit the dust across the two draws. But while Maria Sharapova, Lleyton Hewitt, Jelena Jankovic, Victoria Azarenka, Ana Ivanovic and Caroline Wozniacki are all at various stages of injury or loss of form, it was the loss of Federer which shocked to the core.

The man who beat Federer, Sergiy Stakhovsky, earned his crust out on Centre Court as he dethroned the champion, winning 6-7 7-6 7-5 7-6. Not just any champion either, but the greatest player of his and many other generations, someone who had not been dispatched this early from Wimbledon since 2002.

And the extraordinary thing is, this was no fluke. Stakhovsky's work ethic was astonishing. He flung himself around the court in pursuit of everything; for him no cause was lost. But unlike many a challenger, he kept on doing it. He was not simply fuelled by adrenalin, running out of effort after a set or two. He drove on, fearless of the lofty reputation opposite him.

After losing the first set on a tie-break he showed no inclination to be cowed. He seized the second set also on a tie-break. After two long hours, he was the first to break service, taking down Federer in the third set. And then he triumphed in the fourth, again on a tie-break, and with it the match and the headlines. Throughout it all, his defence at the net was unbreachable.

The statistics tell the story: he scorched 72 winners to the champion's 57. "I'm still in disbelief that that happened," he said. "I was playing the best tennis I have ever played, I am incredibly happy. When you play Roger Federer it's like your playing two players. You play him the player and him the ego. I couldn't play any better today."

Good as Stakhovsky was, from the other side of the court, however, there were hints that this might be his day from the start. Federer, that smoothest of operators, a man so preternaturally unflustered, sweat has never been an issue in his laundry, kept making unforced errors.

A ballooned backhand, a gasp-inducing misdirected forehand: this was not the control we were used to from the champion. More alarmingly, even when he opened up Stakhovsky he failed to apply the finishing touch, missing forehand winners that he would normally have fired off in his sleep.

Was this just an off day? Or did it signal a wider malaise? In this season's slams, Federer has lost in a quarter-final and a semi. Were that the England football team, it would be enough to signal a run on the souvenir T-shirts. But this is Roger Federer and those are not good results.

Now to see him stuttering and staggering here in the second round was a new phenomenon. And one which clearly perplexed those who had come to engage in their standard act of worship in centre court.

UNDERDOG

Federer is loved at Wimbledon because they see in him an embodiment of the place: smooth, unflappable, elegant and enduring. Now here he was showing undeniable signs of decline and ending a stunning run of 36 consecutive Grand Slam quarter-final appearances.

"I still have plans to play for many more years to come," revealed Federer afterwards. "It's normal for people to feel different after losing early all of a sudden. I'll be okay. I can't panic at this point, that's clear. I just have to go back to work and come back stronger really."

Ultimately, however, we should be talking about the victor, not the vanquished.

And how the Ukrainian deserved his ovation. How appropriate it was to see him stop and address the autograph hunters, taking the opportunity to sign something other than a letter of complaint directed at officialdom. Those oversized fluffy balls have sudden value: they are signed by the man who slayed the king. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Wimbledon,

Live, BBC2/TG4, 11.30/1.0

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