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Steve Flink: Federer loses to himself at US Open

9/3/2013 9:00:00 PM

FLUSHING MEADOWS—From the instant he stepped on court to face Tommy Robredo in the round of 16 at the U.S. Open, something seemed terribly wrong with Roger Federer. He lost his serve in the opening game, an ominous sign of things to come. The irregularity of his game—a growing problem for Federer all year long—was evident from the outset. To be sure, he sporadically released his share of astounding winners, had magical moments when he looked like the Federer of old, and tried his hardest to find the right formula to survive on a night when he was advertising his vulnerability at almost every juncture. In the end, though, Federer was found wanting. As strange as it seemed, he simply could not control his nerves or his destiny, and Robredo took apart the Swiss 7-6 (3), 6-3, 6-4.

And so Federer’s 2013 Grand Slam season closed disconcertingly for him. Beginning in 2004—the year he captured his first of five consecutive titles—Federer had been at least a quarterfinalist at every U.S. Open. After making 36 straight journeys to at least the quarterfinals at every major, Federer has now been beaten before that stage in his last two Grand Slam events. Federer opened his 2003 season with a fourth round loss at the Australian Open and followed with a first round setback at Roland Garros, but since that time he had never lost in back to back majors prior to the quarters. He had not been beaten by Robredo in ten previous career duels, but out he went in straight sets against an opponent he had owned. It was a loss that will inevitably force Federer to do a lot of soul searching as he looks for ways to fashion a comeback in 2014. As well as Robredo performed—and this was the best hard court performance of his career to be sure—Federer essentially beat himself, missing forehands by country miles when it really mattered, failing to serve prodigiously when he had no alternative, pressing on one shot after another abysmally.

In fact, Federer squandered 14 of 16 break points opportunities he had in the match, and went 0 for 12 across the last two sets. That was unacceptable against a player he should break frequently. He made 43 costly unforced errors. He took only 32 of 52 net approach points for a success rate of 62%, which was not good enough. All in all, it was a dismal night for Federer across the board, and when the chips were on the line, he did not come up with the goods.

Here is how it unfolded. Federer trailed 15-40 in the opening game, made it back to deuce, but a pair of unprovoked errors off the forehand from the Swiss enabled the Spaniard to get the break. Federer broke back for 2-2, but then lost his serve again in the ninth game. Robredo probably should have closed out the set when he served for it at 5-4.He reached 30-30, but he lost the next two points by going for too much, missing once off the forehand and once off the backhand. Federer was back to 5-5. On they proceeded to a tie-break, with Federer establishing a 3-2 lead on serve. But Robredo was terrific the rest of the way in that sequence. He aced Federer down the T for 3-3, forced Federer into an error for 4-3, and then got the mini-break for 5-3 with a low passing shot that Federer could not handle on the backhand volley.

Federer rolled the dice on the next point. He served-and-volleyed on his second serve down the T in the deuce court, but Robredo ran around his backhand and drove a forehand return winner past the charging Federer. He then aced Federer out wide in the ad court to take the tie-break 7-3. Winning those five points in a row to take the set was no mean feat for Robredo. He had aced Federer twice, made a forehand return winner, and hit a nearly impeccable passing shot in that vital stretch. The Spaniard had a one set lead, but even so most Federer boosters surely believed he could strike back from that deficit and still win the match.

And yet, he kept missing out at the moments of consequence. At break point in the opening game of the second set, Federer bungled a backhand. Robredo followed with an ace, and held on for 1-0. At 2-2, Federer had three more break points, throwing two of them away with mistakes that could have been prevented. With the pressure mounting and Federer clearly losing faith, the score went to 4-3 in favor of Robredo. Federer was serving. After Robredo hit a winner for 0-15, Federer missed three forehands in a row. He was unmistakably nervous, missing by wide margins, allowing Robredo to feel for the first time that he might actually be able to win the match.

Serving for the set at 5-3, Robredo fell behind 15-40, but a brilliant passing shot winner got him to 30-40. Robredo lured Federer into a mistake for deuce, and then he laced an exquisite backhand passing shot winner down the line after Federer chip-charged off a second serve. Down set point, desperation seemed to set in for Federer, who sent a backhand approach shot into the net. Robredo had escaped again on his serve. He had a two sets to love lead. Federer was clearly a befuddled player, and yet eight times over the course of his career.

This would not be one of those nights. At 0-1 in the third set, Robredo faced another break point, but Federer was way out of sorts. He missed flagrantly once more off the backhand. Robredo held on for 1-1. At 1-2, Robredo wandered into another treacherous situation, trailing 15-40, but Federer lost control off the forehand side. Then Robredo forced Federer into another mistake. Federer garnered a third break point chance, wasting it with a backhand unforced error. Robredo made it back to 2-2. He was dodging from danger every step of the way, but now he looked for another opening to close out the match.

With Federer serving at 3-3, the Spaniard pounced. He kept his returns low, sent some of them deliberately short, made Federer play awkward shots. Federer was broken at love, making three unforced errors off the forehand, and one off the backhand. Robredo held on comfortably for 5-3 before Federer closed the gap to 5-3. Serving for the match at 5-4, Robredo was behind 15-30, but an errant forehand from Federer allowed the 31-year-old Spaniard back to 30-30. Federer’s return was short, and Robredo moved forward to drive a forehand crosscourt into the clear. At match point, he served down the T and Federer could not make a difficult return. Robredo had achieved a stunning straight set victory. He made 17 fewer unforced errors than his opponent. He cashed in on four of seven break points. He produced some passing shots that were lifted from his dreams.

Tommy Robredo played first rate tennis, and did not back down when victory was within his grasp. For that, he should be admired. But this was largely about Roger Federer’s ineptitude. Another chapter had been written in a Federer story that has become increasingly distressing to those who believe in him so fully and unconditionally. The pattern for the 32-year-old has been clear. Since winning the Australian Open at the beginning of 2010, he has played 15 Grand Slam events, winning only one (the 2012 Wimbledon), reaching only one other final (the 2011 French Open), losing in the semifinals six times, falling in the quarterfinals five times, bowing out once in the second round and once in the fourth round. Most significantly, in two of the past three years (2011 and 2013), Federer has not secured a major title.

Moreover, this 2013 campaign has been filled with complications for Federer, who has taken only one title all year long (at Halle). His back is an ongoing worry. Who knows if it was a factor in his loss to Robredo, although he was adamant in his press conference that there was no issue with the back on this occasion. Whether or not that is really true, the back is surely an issue that will not evaporate. He can try to manage it, but he will he ever be trouble free in that area again?

Meanwhile, Federer has to sort out his racket struggle. He may have harmed his chances for a good U.S. Open by experimenting with a 98 square inch Wilson prototype racket after Wimbledon, suffering two bad losses on the clay before returning to his old 90 square inch frame in Cincinnati, where he played badly in a win over Tommy Haas and then found a burst of inspiration in a three set loss to Rafael Nadal. After that defeat against the Spaniard, Federer seemed hopeful that his high caliber performance might carry him into the U.S. Open with a sense of renewal and spirit.

He did indeed play three decent matches before the debacle against Robredo, but no one tested the Swiss until the Spaniard confronted him in the round of 16. He had seemed very relaxed and confident until he took on Robredo, but then it all came to a screeching halt. The view here is that this was fundamentally about anxiety. Federer was unusually anxious to perform well in New York. He had, after all, commenced 2013 reasonably well, losing a five set semifinal to Murray at the Australian Open. At the French Open, he lost tamely to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in straight sets, and then Sergiy Stakhovsky ushered him out of Wimbledon in a startling four set, second round loss.

Then, after his unproductive summer, Federer was determined to make a run at the last major of the year, but perhaps he was so eager that he got in his own way. Watching him play Robredo, what struck me above all else was that Roger Federer was choking. It happens to all of the best players, particularly when they are reaching the latter stages of their careers and they are aware that time is short. I vividly recall Pete Sampras playing against Gustavo Kuerten in the final of Miami 13 years ago. He won the first set, and served for the second set in this best of five set final. Sampras, of course, was the best server the game has yet seen, and no one was better at serving a set or a match out than he was.

But he seemed to tense up slightly and Kuerten broke him to win the set. Sampras came back to win the third set and had a 6-2 lead in the fourth set tie-break, standing at quadruple match point. But Sampras needed seven match points before he prevailed 6-1, 6-7 (2), 7-6 (5), 7-6 (8). After the match he was asked about what happened, and he freely admitted, “I choked. We all choke.” That was a candid admission from a great champion. It does indeed happen to them all, and the older they get, the more aware they are of what can happen in close matches that mean so much to them.

I remember when Tim Gullikson was coaching Martina Navratilova in the late 1980’s. Martina played a match at New York’s fabled Madison Square Garden against Helena Sukova in 1988, and was in a position to close out a routine triumph. She led 6-2, 5-4, 30-15 but lost 2-6, 7-5, 6-3. The next day, I was speaking with Gullikson and he was flabbergasted that Navratilova had lost from that position. “She was serving for the match,” he said animatedly, “and was only two points away when she served for the match. It makes no sense to me. That was an automatic win.” But Navratilova was 32, and what once seemed automatic no longer was. She remained a great player, but matches like the Sukova clash could get away from her at that time. Furthermore, there are days when an aging champion plays markedly worse than they once would have thought possible.

That is happening to Federer often these days, and it must be perplexing to him. Sometimes, he probably doesn’t even recognize himself because the tennis he is playing is foreign and unimaginably mediocre. He also must be confused about why nerves are seeping into his psyche so often in big matches. But that is a side of himself that Federer has always struggled with. Even when he was in his prime, he lost a lot of matches he should have won. In 2005, he had a match point in the fourth set of the Australian Open semifinals and was beaten in five sets by Marat Safin. The following year, he had two match points in the fifth set of the Italian Open final and he lost to the Nadal.

There are many other instances of close contests that got away from the great Federer, most notably the 2010 and 2011 U.S. Open semifinals against Novak Djokovic; in both meetings, Federer had two match points late in the fifth set and he lost them both. So what is happening now is an extension of the past. Maybe if Federer had converted one of the three match points he had against Tomas Berdych this year in Dubai, he might have had a different kind of year. We will never know.

Federer will surely experiment with some more of the larger racket heads this fall. But he needs to settle on the right frame long before the 2014 Australian Open, and open the new campaign as purposefully as possible. The paramount question in the minds of many tennis authorities is this: will Federer win another major? Even after his extreme difficulties this year, it would be foolish to write him off. Having said that, I believe his window of opportunity is relatively small. He surely won’t win the French Open again. It is doubtful to me that he can capture another Australian or U.S. Open. Wimbledon remains his best and perhaps only chance, but even that would be a tall order for this man.

Federer needs to put everything he has into the 2014 season. He knows there is a law of diminishing returns. He will be 33 next August. But my guess now is that the odds are slightly against him winning another Grand Slam event. That, of course, would be no shame for a champion who has won more majors (17) than any other man in history. He could well prove me wrong. But if Roger Federer has a 2014 that resembles 2013, if he continues losing to players who never beat him before, if his back keeps hindering him periodically, if he makes a habit out of defeating himself, then maybe he would do well to consider retiring at that point. If he does manage to take another major somewhere over the next year, he might want to go out the way Sampras did in 2002, leaving the sport on the heels of a spectacular victory. This much is certain: he doesn’t want to beat himself in too many more matches on auspicious occasions, the way he did this time around against Tommy Robredo. That is not the way it should be.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.