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.