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The End of Federer (As We Know Him)

Roger Federer has just crashed out of Wimbledon, losing to the clobberin’ Czech, Tomas Berdych. After reaching 23 straight semi-finals or better in Grand Slam tournaments, Federer has now lost in two consecutive quarterfinals. And this one was at Wimbledon, where he’d reached seven straight finals(!), winning six of them.

By now, we can discern a pattern: Federer, from now until the end of the career, will likely lose more than he’ll win against super heavyweight hitters like Berdych, Juan Martin DelPotro (who overpowered him in the US Open Final last year), and Robin Soderling (who torched him at the recent French Open). Today’s defeat, I saw coming down Broadway. Berdych beat Federer earlier this year, and the big Czech isn’t the same mental case he was until quite recently.

What’s going on? Some combination, probably, of an otherwise imperceptible decline in Federer’s great skills, and the emergence of this new generation of ball-whackers. They’re not especially young in tennis terms, but they’ve all come into their own at about the same time.

Federer will probably win another major or two, but he’s not likely to regain the No. 1 position, and will therefore fall one week short of Pete Sampras’s record for most total weeks on top. And I wonder how much he cares, really: There’s not much else he needs to accomplish in tennis, and he might be content to spend the back-end of his career (which might be quite a few years) as a Top Five player whose best shots still elicit gasps, but who can no longer be counted on to be standing at the business end of tournaments. (Indeed, after winning the Australian Open in January, Federer hasn’t won another tournament this year.)

There’s a nice piece on Federer in this week’s New Yorker (not available on line). Here’s a line from the Calvin Tomkins article that might console some of his fans. It did me:

“For five years, his more besotted admirers have counted on him to [win every tournament], and our expectations, as I’m coming to realize, have interfered with the unique pleasure of watching him play. Whether he wins Wimbledon or not this year, he will us…moments…when a ball in flight becomes more than a signifier of victory or defeat.”

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