Monday 27 March 2017

Tennis: Federer's limp exit points to end of era

Simon Briggs in Melbourne

The ballet dancer's physique looked hunched and shrunken. The Olympian features drooped forlornly. Roger Federer has gone out of tennis tournaments before, but never has he seemed so resigned to his fate.

If any sportsman has mastered the art of body language, it is Federer. His proud bearing and immaculate presentation have intimidated hundreds of opponents over the years. So it was strange to see tennis' greatest champion staring down at the ground, wondering how he had managed to hit another backhand off the frame into the crowd. Federer was not just losing; he was at a loss.

In recent months, insiders have been saying that Federer is half a step slower to the ball. That his infallibility has been reduced to mere excellence by the ravages of time. And yet, for all last year's whispering, he never showed any doubt in his own ability. The unflinching eye contact was still there, the suave self-assurance. "Bring it on" was his answer to everything.

Decline

Now the evidence is mounting. Federer is in decline -- a shallow decline perhaps, but an unmistakable one. This is the first time since July 2003, the year he first won Wimbledon, that he has not held at least one of the four Grand Slam titles.

Everyone loses from time to time, but yesterday's defeat to Novak Djokovic will rank among the most harrowing of Federer's career. He played his worst tennis of the match on the most important points -- an alarming development for a man who was once famous for picking the right shot at the right time.

His backhand, in particular, folded under pressure as Djokovic bombarded it with inside-out forehands. Time and again, the ball looped high and long off the frame of the racket, floating up and away like a lost helium balloon at a funfair.

Throughout the final hour of the match, it was Djokovic who commanded the court -- both during the points and between them. The Serb resembled an angry puffin as he stuck out his chest and eyeballed his increasingly hassled opponent.

Pressed from all sides, Federer even began to show signs of irritation on the court, which is unheard of for such a lordly and apparently dispassionate figure.

During the first set he had words with the umpire, objecting to Djokovic's interaction with his coaches. During the third, he raised a sarcastic hand to complain about the interminable length of time that the Serb takes between serves. Djokovic must have known then that he had his man on the run.

Facing his third match point, Federer dumped a backhand feebly into the net, then tore off his headband. His chin dropped to his chest, and his hair hung lankly around his face -- a picture of dejection. For a second or two, this handsome man of 29 almost looked old.

At the post-match press conference, Federer's answers were upbeat, even if his mood was gloomy and his delivery slow. When it was put to him that we might be seeing the end of an era, he bristled. "Yeah, they say that very quickly," he replied. "Let's talk again in six months."

From a statistical perspective, though, the point is unarguable. With a hamstrung Rafael Nadal having lost to David Ferrer, Sunday's final will feature neither of tennis's twin towers. In Grand Slam events, that has happened just once in the past six years -- in the Australian Open of 2008, when Djokovic beat Federer in straight sets in the semi-final en route to taking the title.

Yes, the score from 2008 might sound familiar, but that always had the look of a one-off, given that Federer had come into that tournament on a run of 10 consecutive finals. Yesterday's result, by contrast, fits into the downward trend by the player of the past couple of years.

languishing

"Time, please," is the call of the umpire after each changeover. So does it now apply to Federer, the man who has walked on air throughout the modern era in tennis? And are we seeing a symbolic changeover for two men who have been languishing in his shadow (and that of Nadal, of course)?

Both Djokovic and Andy Murray have had to wait patiently on the fringes, despite Djokovic's success in this tournament three years ago. But yesterday, with a lower-ranked player guaranteed as his opponent in the final, the Serb sounded confident that the wheel might be turning.

"It's good for the sport to have more players being able to win against Federer and Nadal," Djokovic said. "All credit to them for what they have done in last five, six years. They've been very dominant and just a great example of champions. But now these things are changing a little bit."

Of course, Federer's credentials have been questioned before. Even now, he still keeps churning out some of the finest, most elegant and skilful tennis you will ever see. Yet this was no ordinary defeat.

In sport, mortality begins to sneak up on you unexpectedly. Only in Federer's case, it is no longer tiptoeing. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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