December 26, 2010
A year after perhaps his most satisfying Slam victory at the 2009 French Open, a title he had doggedly pursued in the red dirt, Roger Federer lost to the man he vanquished 12 months ago to claim the championship. Robin Soderling dispatched Federer, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-4, in the quarterfinals Tuesday on a heavy and damp Parisian afternoon.
While Roger was not the favorite coming into the event - as a healthy Rafael Nadal is steamrolling the other half of the draw - it still must be a tremendous disappointment for Federer to see his extraordinary run of 23 consecutive Grand Slam semifinals come to an end. Such a record will likely never be approached in the future.
Additionally, if Nadal goes on to win the event, the Spaniard will reclaim the No. 1 ranking, thus delaying Federer's run at Sampras' record of 286 weeks ranked at No. 1 - Federer is agonizingly close, having held the top spot 285 weeks.
What made this loss so, well, actually both surprising and unsurprising was the manner in which Soderling took out the man he had never before beaten in their previous 12 meetings. Though Federer came out blazing, barely losing a point on his serve on his way to claiming the first set, Soderling never let up going for his shots and appeared very much the same man who did the impossible last year when he took out Nadal in the fourth round (for the record, I had predicted Cilic or Berdych would be the ones to take out Federer this year in Paris, but Soderling took care of Cilic in the fourth round).
After taking the second set, Soderling seemed even more confident as the match wore on, literally pushing Federer back on his feet and never allowing the Swiss stylist to control the points. It's almost as if Federer didn't believe Soderling could sustain such force from the backcourt as he relied on his singular defense to keep it close. Soderling just refused to allow Roger any breathing room.
The match felt eerily similar to Juan Martin Del Potro's victory over Federer at last year's U.S. Open final. In that encounter, Del Potro - who like Soderling is very tall, both of them over 6-foot-4 - overpowered Federer, forcing the all-time Slam champ to play defense for much of the match. It was the first time I had seen Federer completely dominated and looking helpless, until Tuesday's affair. Federer did not play poorly or even inconsistently. He simply lost to the better man.
So now there appear to be two ways to defeat the man who many claim is the greatest who ever lifted a racquet. Of course Nadal pretty much owns his rivalry with Federer (winning 14 of the 21 meetings) and his answer key to Federer's on court exam is relatively straightforward - attack Roger's backhand with vicious high topspin and use his speed and court sense to force Federer into going for too much at crucial times. Nadal doesn't really overpower or intimidate Federer with pace; rather, he exhausts and frustrates him by not allowing Roger any sense of rhythm. And it helps that Nadal is a southpaw, as Federer's backhand is usually struck and returned to Nadal's forehand side.
Now that Federer's last two losses in Grand Slams have come against heavy-hitting baseliners, it's clear that if he wishes to reassert his dominance (especially with a healthy Nadal back on tour) Federer will have to rethink how to compete against the heavy hitters. For too long now Federer has ignored his acumen at net (watch his matches from several years ago and it's obvious he attacked the net far more often then) and he'd be well advised to aggressively approach the front court far more frequently in the coming months. It's clear that Roger can't keep up with the new breed of power hitters, so why not use his stunning all-court game to mix things up against his foes? That is the only way he'll have a shot at once again ruling over the men's game.
While disappointing, Tuesday's defeat is not remotely as upsetting or demoralizing as his losses to Nadal at the 2008 Wimbledon and 2009 Australian Open. After all, Roger added the clay court major to his prolific resume last year and, deep down, I doubt his intense resolve was close to what it was last year. It's hard to manufacture desperation and it would have been impossible to not expect Federer to have a slight comedown after last year's stirring victory.
But Wimbledon is a different story. Following up his 2008 defeat with his epic victory over long-frustrated Andy Roddick last year, Federer wishes to continue to reign as king of the lawns. That is the most sacred patch of court in the world for Roger. Look for him to ramp up the aforementioned net game in London in a couple of weeks. And with some extra time now to fine tune his game, I expect Roger to be in prime form at the most important tennis tournament.
Act III of his career has most decidedly descended upon the great Federer. It'll be fascinating to watch over the next 18 months to see if he can add to his Grand Slam ledger. It will be a tremendous challenge to do so. If he were to defeat Nadal again in a Slam final that should put to rest any remaining asterisks on his record. If not ... let the legitimate questions linger.