Friday, July 2, 2010

Federer crashes out of Wimbledon. End of an era or a mere blip?

With the grass courts glistening in balmy sunshine and the games uninterrupted by rain throughout the tournament, it’s all been a bit different this year at the Wimbledon Championships. The most significant oddity though has been caused by Roger Federer’s loss in four sets to Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic in the quarter-finals on Wednesday, with the manner of the loss rather than the defeat by itself representing the greatest surprise.

Federer has had his struggles leading up to Wimbledon, losing in the quarterfinals of the French Open to Robin Soderling and then to Lleyton Hewitt in the grass courts at Halle, with the former ending a phenomenal streak of 23 consecutive appearances in grand slam semi-finals by the Swiss maestro. Although his travails this season, including the fact that he has failed to win a tournament since he lifted the Australian Open in January imply that the loss at Wimbledon mustn’t come as a particular surprise, the fashion of his submission told a separate tale.

Admittedly, Federer had his moments against Berdych; especially in the second set which he grabbed 6-3 by unveiling strokes of typical grace and precision. But as the game progressed, he wilted under the pressure produced by the sheer ferocity of the Czech’s ground-strokes. Berdych has for long been considered a fine talent, one who was touted to belong to a new aggregation of tennis stars alongside Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, only for his skills to be weighed down by frailties of the mind. But having reached his first grand slam semi-final earlier this year at the French Open, he seemed confident and poised, and unleashed a barrage of thunderous strokes that jolted Federer’s usually serene appearance. The Swiss’ glittering career has unquestionably had its low points, but none in recent memory have been so utterly mortifying.

After the game, Federer, ungracious in defeat, suggested that problems with his back and leg were at the centre of the troubles that he encountered. But the parallels between the loss to Berdych and the defeat at Roland Garros to Soderling were far too stark to be ignored as a simple aberration. Federer was unable to match the bold and powerful hitting of either Soderling or Berdych, causing his game to be ultimately dismantled with apparent ease.

Do these brutal defeats indicate the fading or dare I say annihilation of Federer’s aura? Perceived wisdom would suggest otherwise. It would be foolhardy to write off someone, who has sixteen grand slam titles to his name and who continues to be hailed by many as the greatest to have graced the game. However, it's indicative of certain weaknesses which have crept into Federer’s game, assuming they hadn’t existed in the first place. He seems incapable of matching the pace of hitting of the Soderling’s and Berdych’s and his backhand which had undergone a remarkable transformation from a purely defensive stroke to one of potent attacking might has regressed. Also apparent in his defeat to Berdych was a loss of timing on his famed forehand, causing him to rely on his serve, which it must be said, remains a reliable weapon.

As easy as he makes his tennis look, Federer has worked tremendously hard to attain greatness and he is unlikely to yield without a tussle. I would fully expect him to go back to the drawing board, address his flaws and come back stronger for the American season, for he surely has a few grand slam triumphs left in him. But with the task of countering the mounting injury problems as well as a new breed of fearless and talented youngsters at hand, question marks remain over whether Federer will dominate tennis as regally as he once did.

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