Roger Federer once talked, after losing a final at the Australian Open, about the "monster" of expectations he had created for himself during his prime. That monster isn't quite as big or frightening as it once was, but Federer's success over the last year appears to have coaxed it back to life. Yesterday in Melbourne, after Federer lost his first match in 11 meetings against Andreas Seppi, 6-4, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 7-6 (5), everyone was ready with an excuse for him. Everyone, that is, except Federer himself.

A few minutes after he watched the Italian's final brilliant passing shot sail fatefully past him for a winner, Federer was greeted with this question in his press conference: “You didn’t look quite comfortable out there today, especially the first two sets. Was something going on, or just a bad day?”

This may have been a reference to Federer’s hand, which had bothered him earlier in the week, and which might have bothered him in this match as well—his nine double faults were more than his norm, though he also had 15 aces and actually won one more point than Seppi in total. Either way, Federer batted the idea of injury down.

“Just a bad day, yeah,” he said, “I wish I could have played better, but clearly it was tough losing the first two sets...I guess I won the wrong points out there today.”

Two questions later, another reporter took a different approach to helping Federer explain the result. You might call it “the other guy played out of his mind” theory.

“Do you think Seppi played his best match ever?” Federer didn’t bite on that one either.

“We had some good matches in the past,” he said. “He hits a good ball, forehand and backhand, so I knew that on a quicker court where he gets more help on the serve it was potentially going to be more tricky.”

Tie Broken

Tie Broken


After that, a third theory of defeat was floated: Federer's slightly longer end-of-2014 schedule:

“When you come to reflect," he was asked, "do you think you made it back on top after a very grueling, very emotional Davis Cup very late in the year? Maybe this event came in a bit of a rush?”

Again, Federer was having none of it.

“Not really,” he said. “I was actually very happy that it was the way it went, because it allowed me to stay with the rhythm and take a break after the Australian Open. I was playing very well in practice. I was playing very well in Brisbane.”

OK, so the yearly schedule had nothing to do with it; how about the daily schedule?

“Were you surprised you were playing in the morning session?” another journalist asked. “Maybe the conditions might be different.”

“Who knows,” said Federer, sounding weary of trying to fend off the rationalizations for his defeat. “I mean, it’s totally no excuse. How many times have I played a day session, night session, day session, or day session, night session? Who cares?”

Finally, and ironically, there were the courts themselves. Federer, as quoted above, said that they were “quicker” and that this may have helped Seppi’s serve. Later, Seppi himself was asked, twice, whether the court had been “faster” during the heat of the day. He said “no, no, no,” the speed was the same as always. In the past, we’ve heard a lot about how the courts, in Australia and elsewhere, are too slow for Federer's attacking game. Are we going to start hearing the opposite now?

Credit Federer for not going along with, or even entertaining, any of the excuses offered up for him. “I think he did well,” he said of Seppi. “I struggled and he took advantage of it.”

That's as reasonable an explanation for the result as you're going to hear. Seppi was steady and sharp, and he was at his best with Federer at the net. The Italian, who loves a target, lasered passing-shot winners from both sides. Federer, who had rushed forward so effectively last season, finished just 29 of 50 at the net.

But the big difference were the two tiebreakers; they decided everything. Federer has made a career of pulling them out when he needs them, and he usually does it with clutch serving. Yesterday he led 4-1 in the first breaker, and 3-1 in the second. But both times Seppi raised his game and stole them. As Federer said, he won the wrong points in this one.

Tie Broken

Tie Broken

And Seppi won the right ones. The inside-out forehand that he put on the sideline for a winner at 5-5 in the fourth-set tiebreaker may have been the best and gutsiest shot of his career—that is, until the forehand flick pass he pulled off on the next point, and which ended the match. Instead of serving his way out of trouble and into a fifth set, Federer double-faulted to give back the lead, and give Seppi new life. Seppi has always had the timing and touch that his countrymen are famous for; this time he had the calm under pressure that they’re not so famous for.

“Maybe it's the match where I felt more comfortable in my life with my emotions,” he said. “I think that helped me for sure in the end of the match a lot.”

When it was over, Federer walked around the net and greeted his conqueror with a wide smile as he shook his hand. You had the feeling that he likes the humble Italian; it’s hard not to like him. Two years ago, I watched Seppi play Ernests Gulbis at Indian Wells. I went out to see the antics of the younger, wilder Gulbis, but left admiring the older man's conscientious, gentlemanly approach. Why was Seppi, a true pro, not as celebrated as the underachieving Gulbis? Yesterday, finally, he was rewarded with a little glory for his efforts.

“You know,” he said, “to beat Roger for the first time, especially in a Grand Slam, best-of-five, is a special moment for me.”

What does this mean for Federer’s future, you ask? Seppi, for one, was confident that the world No. 2 still has Grand Slam titles in him. On the surface, though, this one is a shocker: It’s the earliest Federer has gone out at the Australian Open since 2001, and in their 10 previous matches, he had lost just one set to Seppi. But if you stick around long enough, the law of tennis averages says you’ll lose to a lot of people you’ve never lost to before. Over the last five years, there have been a dozen or so guys who have recorded their first wins over Federer after many defeats—that includes the man who beat him at the last Grand Slam, Marin Cilic.

Federer said he was worried about this match because he couldn't find a good rhythm in his practice session the previous day. He said the same thing had happened countless times before, yet he had usually gone out and won anyway; this time his worries were justified. If anything, this is a tribute to how often Federer has won over the years without necessarily feeling that he had his best stuff. The norm would have been for him to have lost a lot more of these types of matches, to a lot more of the Seppis of the world. As Federer’s great Spanish rival would put it, “Losing is the normal thing, no?”


Tie Broken

Tie Broken

Will it finally become the normal thing for Federer? He was offered one final excuse in his presser, the excuse of age.

“Do you feel like you’re having these off days,” he was asked, “do you feel they’re coming more often in the last couple of years?”

Federer slapped the idea away, as he had all the others.

“Oh, no,” he said. “This is a feeling I’ve had for 15 years. To me, I don’t read anything into that. It’s not like I’m playing shocking or I’m feeling shocking. It’s like one of those things where you look back and [think] maybe, Yeah, I didn’t feel so good. But if you win, you never even question it. If I were you, I wouldn’t read too much into that.”

I, for one, will try to take your advice, Roger.