Monday, April 4th, 2011

The End of the Roger Federer Era

During the Sony Ericsson Open this last week, spring in Miami ended, hot storms blew in and then the pasty out-of-town visitors baked each day in the green bowl of the Crandon Tennis Center stadium. As they sat and reddened, the top three ranked men were left to play together in the three final slots.

As the sun slipped down in the penultimate men's game, Rafael Nadal, whose outfit features at least 12 visible logos (one on each side of each shoe; over the heart; the shorts; each wristband; the headband; and at least one on each sock), and who apparently cannot be provided with comfortable underwear by his sponsor (never has a tennis player spent more court time pulling his shorts down and out), blew through the world's best tennis player as if Roger Federer was a cardboard cutout of a picture of Roger Federer of 2007.

It was not clear what would happen at the outset, and the match-up started fair. But even by game three, everything turned sideways, and Federer was hanging on with both hands to keep from sliding off; soon into the second set, he began to lose sight of the court entirely. A blast of Federer's brilliance came in the fourth game of the second set, to the crowd's delight, and he indeed took a game; the crowd burst into cheers. Federer took two in that set, but: ouch, 6-3, 6-2, the end, Anna Wintour out of the stadium, balls into the seats, everyone home to put some aloe on.

Roger Federer will be 30 this summer; the 24-year-old Nadal is made of muscle at this stage in his training and while he was not without error or misjudgment, in this meet-up he was actually frightening.

The Miami crowd as well is tough. Federer got to this match when Gilles Simon retired against Federer—giving Federer, perhaps, more days of rest than he needed—at a score of 0-3: just ten minutes of play. Young Simon was booed viciously by the audience on his way out of the stadium. (His neck was stiff, he said.) Federer took it well; he shrugged, said it had happened five times in his career, and acted the champ. (The tournament behaved kindly as well, hustling a great mens' doubles match into the big ring.) But the stadium was reminded of its softer side while watching Federer fight, and watching Federer turn inward in a horror. The audience here, when it is not pasty-white, is most often Spanish-speaking; for them to turn to Federer's defense and root against a Spanish player is definitely something.

They were right, though: it was a terribly sad match. This was not like the pair's very first match-up, when Nadal also beat Federer, or the matches that followed, where Nadal more frequently won. This was, and this sounds more cruel than it should, like an old horse shrugging off a race. (Well? Athletes also have short lives.) Roger Federer has been the most regularly spectacular tennis player of recent times, and this weekend he flailed, and no one knew why, and it didn't look as if he knew why either. And to be fair, Federer gets pissy, reasonably, with the over-the-hill talk, particularly after he had a very, very good 2010.

With Federer gone, it was Nadal and the 23-year-old, spider-like Novak Djokovic. Djokovic has been, and now is still, undefeated this calendar year, with an additional $605,500 in his pocket.

That's not to say that those two didn't deliver a fantastic match of tennis. There was no one to pity. The highlight reel is instructive. (Start at exactly 3 minutes in, to get 30 seconds of top-notch tennis; similarly, 4'05".)

But there was one especially telling minute, where, in a back-and-forth race across the court, right before Djokovic hits one of the most impressive shots of the game, he pauses, watching Nadal, and scratches his nose. (That's at 5'01".) This is not a player who over-thinks anything, and he didn't think his way through a game that got progressively more astonishing, with a tie-break in which he became ever more confident. Thinking seems like the enemy sometimes in tennis, while action and emotion can win matches. It wasn't just the nose-scratching either: fairly early, Djokovic threw down his racket in a fit—and it was good for him. He knows how to ride the anger (and, at other times on court, the delight, and the envy, and the frustration), not stuff it down, where it can become crippling. Two years ago, on the same court, it was Federer throwing rackets—only that was while losing, and losing to Djokovic. It didn't feel good at all, Federer said afterward.

26 Comments / Post A Comment

David Cho (#3)


Matt Langer (#2,467)



David Roth (#4,429)

Straights can like sportswriting by gays as well. Really good stuff!

Aww, thanks David Roth!

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

Thanks for this, Choire. You bought me for a year.

Astigmatism (#1,950)

Tennis is the new bullfighting.

Matt (#26)

I know right.

Craig Brownson (#4,257)

Gays also like sportwriting by gays (if it's about gay sports like tennis).

Bryan Keller (#3,804)

Awesome tennis blogging, Choire! I will see you out on the East River courts!

Bittersweet (#765)

Great stuff, Choire. I really hope everyone's wrong, and Federer has something left in the tank, because at his best he's just mind-blowing.

PropSword (#2,870)

He's fading with age, sure… but I still think Roger's gonna win 1-2 more Grand Slams. Especially considering how he's virtually never injured. If Rafa or the Djoker ever go down, who's in his way? And it's not like he will never beat those guys ever again. I say there's a good chance Roger takes another Wimbledon this year.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

You are talking about Roger Federer, while this is really about "Roger Federer", as in "The Unbeatable God of Tennis". When you see "Roger Federer" as your next opponent, you don't think about playing tennis, you think about how to make most out of the opportunity to stand so close to him, and hit a few balls his way for good time and laughs.

"Roger Federer" is dead. Roger Federer is alive and fine and he'll win more matches and Wimbledons and what not, but rest assured that Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic will walk out on the court fully expecting to beat him every time. Whether they will or not, and how many times is less relevant. What's important is that God is dead.

What's so grand about the arrival of Novak Djokovic is that while there was only Nadal, you could still think of Two Gods dividing the heaven between them (clay to Nadal, rest to Federer). But now with Djokovic, that no longer makes any sense. There is no God or Gods any more. There's just a bunch guys with human personalities brawling.

PropSword (#2,870)

I agree with you, there's no question that Roger is no longer the untouchable tennis force he was a few years ago. But "God is dead" because he bowed out in the semis at the Sony Ericsson Open? Dubious.

Actually, I'm hoping it will make for some of the best matches of his career. I kind of like the idea of him battling to reclaim glory, especially if it means having to really dig deep for a tough win.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

Well, "God" is currently not holding any major titles. Nadal holds 3, and Djokovic 1. In fact, "God" did not even play a final in any of them. In last 3 months, he lost 3 times to Djokovic and once to Nadal, taking only 1 set of the 9 played. Some tried to paint the beatdown "God" received in the semi at Miami as some sort of a rise of the second God in Nadal, but than Djokovic put a quick end to that in the final (again). Therefore – there is no more God.

keerquie (#3,346)

Great way of describing it Niko. It's such a reality in tennis, where that Godliness for a time will make you THE scalp to have, but no one really believes they can actually have it. I think it perpetuates a lot of confidence in God (Federer) and a lot of fear and disbelief in ability to the non-Gods (Roddick, for example?).

This was so similar in many women who dominated. I remember Serena when she was God, and to beat Serena would make a player nameable. In some ways, beating her (and Federer) will always be a big moment in a player's career from now on, but there was a distinct difference when beating "Serena Williams" changed to beating Serena Williams. And once lost, I don't think it ever comes back.

PropSword (#2,870)

I don't understand this concerted effort to affix a NIN song to this argument as some sort of Tennis maxim. Even when Federer was at his most dominant, he was still beatable. But it's true… with the rise of Novak, the power in the men's game is splintered and doesn't have a singular, dominant force right now. So in that sense Niko, your argument is spot on.

Flaneur (#998)

When Federer was at his most dominant–his very most–he essentially wasn't beatable at Slams other than Roland Garros. And there only by Rafa, of course. If not for him, Roger would have been Lavering his way through the 2000s. I do think Roger may have one more Slam victory in him–probably a U.S. Open, as he might not be quite quick enough to take Wimbledon anymore. But the list of players who can beat him on a good day is longer than ever, and the list of players who fear him doesn't include anyone in the current top 10.

PropSword (#2,870)

"the list of players who fear him doesn't include anyone in the current top 10."
I don't know about that claim. Outside of Novak, Rafa, and Murray… Roger's H2H record against the current top 10 is 47-5.

Kevin (#2,559)

Spot on!

Aatom (#74)

but I could swear Choire said he didn't get tennis at one point. You could write about Rafa every day as far as I'm concerned.

keisertroll (#1,117)

I'll just leave my trademark "Novak Djokovic = 1980's placekicker Novo Bojovic" joke here.

Dan Kois (#646)

Gosh, this was great.

keerquie (#3,346)

Also, please give some love to the ladies. When I'm up til 6 am crying and screaming watching Maria, it would be lovely to know it was handled tenderly and thoughtfully by a writer at the Awl, and wake up to that the next day. But like, Maria is back! (I don't care how off her second serve is, wait a few months and we'll be hailing the return of the ice queen.)

Flaneur (#998)

Joining the chorus–more like this, please! Great stuff. Inspiration as I try to pull my record up to a lame 13-13 in my Friday-morning indoor league.

Bobby Womack (#4,074)

Great post! I'm looking forward to the first Wimbledon in recent memory where I'm not sitting indoors during a Fourth of July party, or hungover on the fifth, watching the men's final with a headache.

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