For more than four years, Roger Federer was the undisputed king of tennis, dominating and demoralizing opponents like perhaps no other athlete in history.
But he has looked very human so far this year.
For the first time since 2003, he enters the U.S. Open without the top seed. He has stumbled through the year with just two tournament wins and not a single Grand Slam title.
After 237 weeks as the world’s No. 1 player, Federer relinquished the crown to Spain’s Rafael Nadal last week. But perhaps more importantly, he enters the tournament without the aura of invincibility that was apparent during his current run of four straight titles at Flushing Meadows. Instead, the aura now belongs to Nadal, who beat Federer at this year’s French Open and Wimbledon and who is coming off a gold medal win in singles at the Beijing Olympics.
“It shows you how precarious tennis can be, even when you’re talking about someone who dominated the way he did for four years,” CBS tennis analyst Patrick McEnroe said. “You lose a little confidence in your shots, and all of the sudden you start to second guess yourself, and the players start to feel that now they can go out against Federer and have a shot.”
Federer opens his quest for a fifth straight U.S. Open title Tuesday against Maximo Gonzalez of Argentina, ranked 118th in the world. It is a match Federer is expected to win easily, but the 12-time Grand Slam winner has lost to several players this year who he had previously dispatched in straight sets. In Beijing, he was ousted in the quarterfinals by James Blake, who had gone 0-8 against Federer. Federer’s appearances in the recent U.S. Open Series hard-court tournaments ended with losses to Giles Simon and Ivo Karlovic.
The roots of Federer’s struggles this season could be traced to the beginning of the year, when he came down with a case of mononucleosis that affected his fitness level through the spring. He lost in the semifinals of the Australian Open to eventual champion Novak Djokovic and did not win his first tournament until April, enduring uncharacteristic losses along the way. Then came the French Open, in which he won just four games in a straight sets loss to Nadal in the final.
But a conversation about Federer’s fall from the top ranking must start with the Swiss player’s loss to Nadal in the Wimbledon final, a five-set match that many consider to be the best ever played. Federer entered having won five straight titles at the All England Club and had beaten Nadal in the two previous finals.
“Losing that match, he has not gotten over it,” McEnroe said. “It was so close, maybe the greatest match ever, obviously. Losing that match and winning that match for Nadal has been the difference for how they’ve played this summer.”
Federer has called the loss one of the most disappointing of his career, and he has yet to show he has rebounded mentally.
“I believe there’s an extra bit of confidence that shows up when you win, win, win, win, win,” said John Murray, a sports psychologist from West Palm Beach, Fla., who has worked with several tennis pros. “I don’t think it’s a matter of him not getting back what he had, but it’s the confidence of other players. It’s shifted. Players are starting to see Federer as vulnerable.”
Federer acknowledged that his psyche has taken a beating.
“When you lose maybe five matches a year, I mean, it’s a different type of, you know, confidence you have,” he said after his Olympics loss. “But at the same time I think it’s always been difficult to beat all these guys. It’s just a matter of losing some matches where I feel like I shouldn’t have lost. And then sometimes it plays a trick in your mind where you think maybe you’re not playing that well actually, but it’s actually not the case.”
Former top-ranked American John McEnroe, who also will provide U.S. Open commentary for CBS, said Federer’s recent play reminds him of his own experience in 1985, when he failed to win a Grand Slam title after winning two in the previous year. McEnroe would never win another major title.
“You never know when you’re going to see the beginning of the end,” he said. “It’s hard to predict. You work so hard to build that invincibility, knowing that at any moment it could break.”