Has Roger Federer - probably the finest tennis player of all time, definitely the most decorated - finally seen the sun set on his career? The signs were certainly hard to escape in the twilight of the Louis Armstrong Stadium this week, where the Swiss master crashed out 7-6, 6-3, 6-4 to the 19th-seeded Spaniard Tommy Robredo, who had only taken three sets from from Federer in their previous ten encounters.
Well, 'slumped' out would be a more accurate description in truth, as Federer seemed largely devoid of both his usual genius and spirit. Of course he has experienced losses and close escapes before, but the noticeable difference here was that he gave off no real sense of authority and control, let alone his aura of invincibility of days gone by - a sense that any lost sets were a mere blip, from which he was bound to recover.
From the second set, Federer lost all of the 12 break points he had, and at least half of them through his own error or timidity - something unheard of for a player of such (now former?) mental strength. It was ironically Robredo who was far more clinical with his chances, winning four of seven break points and taking all set points at first attempts.
In fairness, Federer was, at times, brilliant in the first set, especially his service game at 5-5, where he played the type of languidly extravagant tennis he has made his own, including one of the most audacious shots I've ever seen. He had just played a good, slightly inside-out forehand to Robredo's backhand and received a decent ball back, slightly wider to his backhand. He shaped for the classic Fed inside-out forehand, back but harder to the same place, but instead, right at the last split-second, having seen Robredo guess fairly heavily for that shot, played a casual, no-backswing forehand slice down the line - leaving Robredo stranded. There won't have been many slower baseline winners in tennis history, such was the shot's deception.
After the first set, though, there was little of his trademark swagger. Granted, there is a fine line in reading Federer's body language given his style of play, as he himself acknowledged in his post match interviewing, noting how when he wins it often "looks like he's training", when he loses everyone is "shell-shocked" and confused, but that he is trying 100% in both circumstances.
But even given this caveat, Federer's body language was unlike his usual self; none of the usual fist pumps, and the eyes which often give off a cold, steely determination instead making him appear resigned and pretty lifeless. This may sound like I'm reading too much into it, and maybe I am, but watching Nadal afterwards (who overturned a one-set deficit to beat Kohlscreiber in four, setting up a tie with Robredo), the difference was stark; the Spaniard bouncing and running from his seat at the change of ends, along with his usual fist pumps and shouts that greet, say, an outrageous passing shot.
Hopefully, Federer can rekindle some of that spirit, so he can reach another slam final and maybe even win one. It just doesn't seem right for such a player to drift off slowly and surreptitiously into the night...