NEW YORK—Rafael Nadal has said many times that he wishes he had Roger Federer’s gifts, his easy way of gliding around a court and flicking winners seemingly at his leisure. But on Monday at the U.S. Open, when Federer started his match in the late afternoon and Nadal followed him a couple of hours later, Rafa was probably happy to play exactly the way he does. Both players faced the same heavy, humid conditions, which made hitting through the court difficult. Both faced inspired opponents who were moving and smacking the ball about as well as they can. And both, at first, couldn’t find the solution to their nerves—or whatever it was that ailed them—on break points. But it was Nadal whose grinding, physical game allowed him to win anyway, while on this day Federer never found the key to unlock his fabled talent.
Federer lost for the first time in 11 matches to Tommy Robredo, and the 7-6 (3), 6-3, 6-4 scoreline made it appear closer than it was. The two had been scheduled to play the final day match in Ashe Stadium, but a four-hour rain delay forced them over to the more intimate confines of Louis Armstrong Stadium. Federer hadn’t played a match on this chaotic court since 2006. Some thought he looked boxed in, unable to spread his wings. But location, according to Federer, wasn’t the problem. In fact, he had hoped it might be a solution. He said the surface there is faster than it is in Ashe, which is to his liking, and that the fans might give him some energy.
“I’ve been practicing on Armstrong,” Federer said, “so there’s no excuse there. I was prepared for it. I was even happy about it. I thought it was going to be a great atmosphere, that I could take advantage of maybe the fact that people were really going to get behind me. But unfortunately I didn’t show the game that they could really get into and excited about.”
Some thought the long delay may have affected him adversely, but Federer slapped that idea away, too.
“I’ve waited for so many matches throughout my career. That’s definitely the last excuse you find, you know.”
Still others believed his back, which sidelined him earlier in the summer, was acting up. Not according to the Fed:
“No, no issue,” he said flatly.
Federer lost this match, first of all, because he was awful. We wonder whether he’s lost a step; today, for once, it looked like he had the steps all wrong. He missed routine forehands, mid-court forehands, putaway forehands; and as he said afterward, when he didn’t miss them, he hit them right to his opponent. (Somehow, in the final stats, Federer was listed as having hit more winners than errors, which is hard to believe.) He was upfront about his performance afterward, and he spoke without angst or defensiveness. “I kind of self-destructed,” he said. ‘It just ended up being a bad combination of many things today. I’ve got to go back to work and come back stronger, get rid of this loss now as quick as I can, because that’s not how I want to play from here on. I want to play better. I know I can.”
Federer lost because the 31-year-old Robredo played exceptionally well. Federer said Tommy "was making sure he was making many balls.” That’s true, but Robredo was doing more than that. He served well when it mattered; the talk afterward was about how Federer squandered 14 of 16 break points, but you can also say that Robredo saved 14 of 16. The Spaniard hit several brilliant hooking passing shots, and he showed that he hasn’t lost even a hint of a step at his advanced age. And after all of the losses to Federer, Robredo closed out his first win without a hitch.
Federer lost this match because he’s in a slump. After his second-round defeat at Wimbledon, he said he wasn’t winning the big points, and that was truer than ever today—as I said, he was 2 of 16 on break points, and he lost many of them on head-scratchingly easy errors. It’s a problem that has plagued him at times in his career, and which he admits has become worse over the past year. Interestingly, Federer said today, “My problem is there in the training, not actually playing matches right now. Important for me, first and foremost, is that I move better, that I play better.” He may be referring to his back, which, as he said earlier in the summer, has hampered his workouts.
Federer lost because at 32 he’s not the player he was in 2006 or 2007 or 2009, years when he reached the finals of all four majors. The name “Federer” still implies a level of dominance, even perfection, that the man who bears it can no longer sustain. He came into this tournament ranked No. 7, and his loss today means that for the first time since 2002 he’ll have gone through a season without reaching a Grand Slam final. His long-term record at the U.S. Open tells his current story as well as anything: From 2004 to 2008, he won the tournament; in 2009, he lost in the final; in 2010 and 2011, he lost in the semis; last year he lost in the quarters; this year he lost in the fourth round.
Finally, Federer lost because that’s what tennis players do. There don’t need to be any extenuating circumstances, and it’s only his own unparalleled record of consistency that makes us look for them he fails to win. He’s 32, and he played a bad match. He says he doesn’t want to let it happen again. He’s got work to do.
At one point in his fourth-rounder against Philipp Kohlschreiber tonight, Rafael Nadal was even worse than Federer when it came to break points—two of 17. Rafa kept putting himself in position to take a lead and put a sleeper hold on the match, and he kept missing returns or overhitting ground strokes, kept watching as Kohlschreiber slapped another forehand winner down the line or slid another serve past him. The little German was hot to start, and he kept his level high until the end of the third set. Kohlschreiber finished with 12 aces and 49 winners for the match, one more than Rafa. He saved eight break points in the first game of the third set alone.
It was easy to see that Rafa was struggling. Everyone else on this humid night was sweating profusely; he was sweating buckets. The conditions were tough, he said, and he didn’t feel like he had control of the rallies in the first set.
But that’s the thing that Rafa can do that Roger can’t, or at least that Roger can’t do at this stage: If Nadal is not playing his best, he can grind more, hit with more depth or topspin, wear the other guy down with the heaviness and accuracy of his shots, as well as his relentless mindset. Especially his relentless mindset. Maybe it was the night session, maybe it was knowing that his draw is wide-open to the final, but Nadal was keyed up for this one and wasn't going to let it go, no matter how well his opponent played.
Nadal lost the first set; the turnaround came early in the second. Down 40-15 on Kohlschreiber’s serve, he came back and reached break point with a terrific touch lob off a dumb drop volley from Kohlschreiber. On the next point, Nadal got a mid-court forehand, and this time he made no mistake with it. After losing two games when he was up 0-40 on Kohlschreiber’s serve, Nadal finally broke after being down 40-15. That’s not winning big points; it’s creating them. Some nights it’s good to be the earth-bound grinder rather than the soaring genius. Some nights it’s good to be 27 rather than 32.
So Fedal is foiled again at the Open. After his 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-3, 6-1 victory, Nadal was asked if he was surprised that he and Federer had never played here. His answer was wistful and genuinely sad.
“For two times we were one point away,” he said of two previous years when they almost reached the final together, in 2010 and 2011, only to have Novak Djokovic come back form match point down in the semis to beat Federer. “For this time we were one match away....To be honest, it was going to be great if we were able to play that final [here], because I felt our rivalry for so many years we were able to play in all the best scenarios, stadiums, around the world. So probably that deserves to have that match here in the U.S. Open, too, the biggest court of the world. But didn’t happen. That don’t mean it cannot happen in the future. We’ll see. Hopefully. But is true we are getting older.”
The final piece in the Federer-Nadal rivalry, on the world’s biggest court in the world, is missing. In tennis, you can’t win them all. Sometimes, I guess, you don't even get to play them all.