With his noisy exit from the Australian Open, Roger Federer has surrendered his last bastion
One of the most frequently heard refrains during Roger Federer’s dominant years – the Federer era, if you will – was how inexpressive and quiet he was during his matches. He wasn’t quite the ‘Iceman’ Borg, but he came close; you would be lucky to hear a maximum of one stray ‘Allez!’ or a couple of random yells of frustration through entire tournaments that he played.
(Note: You can watch all the action from the Australian Open live on Sony Liv Sports here.)
That has changed quite a bit in recent years. While he continues to be largely silent during matches in which he’s coasting along to victory, he raises the decibel level considerably when things are going south. Today’s third round match at the Australian Open against Andreas Seppi, which Federer lost 4-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6-7, was a fine example of that. On every shanked forehand (of which there were many) and every clutch winner (of which there were but a few), Federer threatened to give everyone a sound-gasm with the soothing tones of his dulcet voice.
Just kidding; the sounds were actually quite unpleasant to hear.
They did make for an interesting character study though. Does Federer care more about winning now, since he loses a lot more than he did during his heyday? Or are the vocal shenanigans an indication of how much more effort he has to put to stay with his opponents these days? He’s being more creative with his self-exhortations too; today, he resorted to multiple languages to express his investment in the match.
Perhaps more than anything else – more than his shanks, his losses, his mental errors – this increased ‘volume’ of play may be the best indication of how far along Federer has come in his decline. He missed a boatload of regulation forehands today, but what made each one of them look starker was the anguished scream that punctuated it. He made a ton of unseemly errors off the backhand, but none of them looked as bad as the ones which he followed up with a pained ‘Aaaaaa!’.
Of course, it would be unfair to leave Seppi out of this discussion. The Italian did, after all, have a big role to play in Federer’s troubles and his frequent cries of despair. He attacked the Swiss’ backhand with gusto (and why wouldn’t he?), he took time away from Federer on the forehand side, and he served particularly well. Although his first serve percentage was a less-than-ideal 57%, he made good use of the first delivery, and got it in on most of the crucial points.
Seppi did pretty much what he always does, but he executed it all with a greater degree of panache, which was enough to send the 17-time Slam champion into a tizzy. The Italian had entered the match having lost all 10 of his previous encounters against Federer, but played infinitely better than he ever has against the Swiss.
Still, should we have expected the World No. 2 to react better to Seppi’s higher level of play? By all accounts, yes. Federer was made to fight for nearly every single point, but that doesn’t explain the rash of errors he committed off his traditionally stronger wing. He rushed on his groundstrokes and was wasteful with his opportunities (he converted only three of 10 break points, and missed a lot of makeable returns on 30-30 and deuce points). He was rather poor with his net approaches too; after a while I lost count of the number of easy passes that Seppi landed.
Most crucially of all though, Federer’s serve wasn’t there to bail him out when he most needed it. He made as many as nine double faults, which is an astronomical number for a server as precise as the Swiss. And every time you thought he would clamp down on the proceedings by unleashing a series of big first serves, he proceeded to repeatedly miss the first ball. He even gave up a mini-break in the fourth set breaker with a double fault; that’s the last thing you expect Federer to do in any match, let alone a Grand Slam encounter where he is fighting for his life.
There was still the odd moment of magic, when he made the world look like a better place with his genius. The Kyrgios-like tweener he struck in the second set today made for an unforgettable point, and was probably worth the price of admission on its own.
But overall, Federer’s play today remained sub-standard almost throughout the match. When so many things are going wrong with your game, you know it’s just a bad day in the office, and Federer admitted as much in his press conference. “I guess it was just an overall feeling I had today out on the court that I couldn't really get the whole game flowing,” he said, with a touch of moroseness. “Was it backhand? Was it forehand? Was it serve? It was a bit of everything.”
There’s nothing unusual about that – the ‘bad day’ phenomenon happens to the best of us. Except that Federer hasn’t had too many bad days in office at the Australian Open. Not since 2003, at any rate; that was the last year before this when Federer failed to reach at least the semifinals in Melbourne.
The last couple of years have brutally eaten away at Federer’s many bastions that were supposed to be impregnable. He was supposed to always get himself to the business end of Wimbledon, but then he lost to Sergiy Stakhovsky in the 2013 second round. The US Open was supposed to be his perennial last stand no matter what happened in the season leading up to it, but then he lost to Tommy Robredo in the 2013 fourth round. He was supposed to be a guaranteed presence in the French Open quarterfinals, but then he lost to Ernest Gulbis in the 2014 fourth round.
And now, Federer is a lock to reach the Australian Open semifinals is no longer a tennis truism either. The last of Federer’s fortresses has been breached, and surprisingly, that has happened on the back of a strong finish to the previous season (and a bright start to the current one). What was not surprising, however, was that the downfall didn’t make for a pretty picture. The shanks today were as shocking as they were ugly, and it’s hard to comprehend how the Swiss can take it all in his stride so easily.
“This is a feeling I’ve had for 15 years,” Federer said in response when asked whether he could make sense of why he struggled so much today. “To me, I don’t read anything into that. It’s just not the best feeling to have. It’s not like I’m playing shocking or feeling shocking, it’s just like, one of those things, maybe, you look back and say, yeah, I didn’t feel so good, you know? But if you win you don’t question any of it. So if I were you I wouldn’t read much into it.”
How can we not read much into it though? We are human after all; we crave the dramatic and the sensational, even if it is something as tragic as the irreversible decline of a champion. The man himself can shrug off his losses and move on (”Rest, and then get ready for practice” was his immediate reply when asked what he would do after this). But can the rest of the world do so?
Maybe not in the immediate future, but I have a feeling we will eventually get there. With his last winning streak broken, not much will come as a surprise from here on. An early loss will still be an upset, but not the headline-grabbing kind that it is right now. And with two inexplicable poor performances at the Slams in the last two years (the honour of the first one goes to the 2013 US Open match against Robredo), we will probably learn to not be shocked when he struggles to find the broad side of a barn with his groundstrokes.
Who knows, we might even get to a point where we look at him the way we do now at Venus Williams – he will still be a sentimental favourite, but we will not think the earth has stopped spinning when he loses. That said, let us hope that his future losses are not as loud and filled with vocal self-exhortations as the one today, or else we will never again be able to use the famous line “Shh, quiet! Genius at work” when he plays.
But the last word, as always, belongs to the winner, and Seppi made doubly sure of that with his unreal forehand pass on match point. The Italian was asked to produce a miracle shot to defeat Federer, and he delivered. That’s something we can get used to, right?