Roger Federer is unquestionably one of the greatest players of all time. He has won five US Opens and a host of other titles. But he looked a far cry from that great champion when John Millman ran him ragged over the course of four sets in their round of 16 clash in New York last week. A match that ended when Federer sent what would usually be a regulation forehand well beyond the baseline to hand Millman a 3-6 7-5 7-6 7-6 victory.
Federer, who was unusually drenched with sweat, did not look furious or disappointed as he so often does at the moment of defeat. Rather, as he later admitted in his press conference, his overriding feeling was one of relief. Relief that the battle with the scrappy and seemingly tireless Millman was over, relief that he could leave the brutally humid conditions for somewhere air-conditioned and perhaps even relief that the pressure of challenging for a Major was over.
A concerning surrender
That defeat was the second time in as many Majors that Federer had made an early exit. At Wimbledon, where he was the defending champion, he had sailed into the quarterfinals without breaking a sweat or dropping a set. There he came up against the formidable power of eighth seed Kevin Anderson, but nonetheless looked to have the match in his grip. Indeed, when he forced a match point leading 6-2 7-6 5-4 the contest looked to be as good as over.
Anderson saved it with a big serve and a big forehand, leading commentator John Lloyd to remark, in praise of Anderson’s attitude, that the South African still looked like he believed he could win the match. It was a comment more prophetic than Lloyd realised. Anderson’s weapons began to find their mark and he slowly, but surely, turned the match around. The third and fourth sets went his way leaving the No. 1 Court crowd to settle in for a deciding set few had anticipated.
Anderson’s chances of victory still looked slim. These were the kind of matches that Federer just didn’t lose. Indeed, one could count on a single hand the number of times Federer had lost from two sets to the good. It had only happened once before at Wimbledon when Jo-Wilfried Tsonga stunned him in the quarterfinals in 2011. But Anderson proved the stronger of the two, eventually emerging triumphant from a 2-6 6-7 7-5 6-4 13-11 epic and went on to reach the final.
What will surely concern Federer and his fans about the two defeats is the manner of them. In both matches he held commanding leads, against Millman he served for the second set, but in both matches he was outfought by more determined opponents. That is troubling because for all Federer’s artistry, it has been his relentless pursuit of victory that has fired him to so many memorable successes. That was noticeably absent, particularly against Millman.
In that match, Federer’s lack of desire seemed to be the cause of his struggles rather than a poor performance knocking his confidence and belief. Time and time again he bailed out of rallies early, which resulted in 77 unforced errors. He also seemed to be going for more than he usually would on serve and his numbers at the line were far below what one would usually expect from the great Swiss. He hit 10 double faults and missed more than half of his first serves.
Not time to panic
But it did take Anderson 4 hours and 14 minutes to wear Federer down in their quarterfinal clash. And though his fourth round match with Millman lasted less time, with it clocking in at 3 hours and 35 minutes, it was played in considerable heat and oppressive humidity. In such difficult conditions it is surely unsurprising that Federer, who at 37-years-old is the oldest man in the top 100 let alone the top ten, struggled to compete and find his best tennis.
And despite the careful management of his schedule, it is only going to get tougher for Federer to play such long matches or in such conditions as he ages. Defeats like those he suffered against Anderson and Millman will become more common. For though he may yet achieve further glories, his career is coming to a close. Though he has spoken of a desire to play at the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020 and may well do so, it is hard to look beyond that point for Federer.
But he has not embarked on his farewell tour yet. It should not be forgotten that he won a Grand Slam in January, has twice ascended to the world #1 ranking this year and was competing in a Masters 1000 final just last month. Any talk of him tarnishing his legacy should be disregarded, for he is a legend of the sport and beloved by millions of fans around the globe. Every time he steps on to court to be witnessed by those fans he adds to his enviable legacy, win or lose.
It may well be that Federer’s Slam winning days are behind him. His great rivals Nadal and Djokovic have been playing some excellent tennis whilst the game’s rising young stars grow in strength and number with each passing month. Any resistance to them cannot now be more than a rearguard action, for his chief quarrel is with time itself. But perhaps there is enough magic left in that Wilson wand to fend off even that foe awhile longer yet. Either way, it promises to be fun to watch him try.