This is the way an era ends: not with a bang, but with a slow accretion of time.
The Roger Federer era is over.
On his best surface, on the Centre Court where he raised six winner’s cups, five in a row, he fell to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the Wimbledon quarterfinals. It was his second consecutive exit in the quarters at the championship he once owned.
It was not so much the loss as the way in which he lost. Federer raced through the first set, 6-3, committing no unforced errors. He won the second in a tiebreaker that he thoroughly dominated, as he has so many tiebreaks in big matches, the short form somehow concentrating his advantages while exposing the weaknesses of his opponents.
For his career at the Slams, Federer was 178-0 when up two sets.
And now he is 178-1.
The 26-year-old Tsonga has often shown flashes of brilliant power tennis, but appears to lose focus when the shots aren’t falling in. He had dropped four of his five matches against Federer, all four losses in straight sets, including a 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 dismantling in their only Grand Slam meeting, at the 2010 Australian.
On Wednesday, Tsonga’s serve was a relentless weapon. He was broken in his first service game, but never faced another break point. He took intelligent chances with drives down the line and, particularly in the fourth set, pressed his advantage at the net. In each of the last three sets, he broke Federer early and then held serve for a trio of clear, clean, 6-4 wins. It was just the second match Tsonga had ever won after trailing two-sets-to-love.
Time and again, Federer glided into the corners after a Tsonga drive – has anyone ever flowed as effortlessly as Federer, regardless of the surface? – and put his racket on the ball, but the stunning returns we’re used to seeing from him were flying long or, more often, falling harmlessly into the net.
When mileage and age begin to show, it costs not a step but rather a fraction first – a half, a quarter, just a little hitch of timing that keeps you from getting where you need to be to hit the shots you feel in your body.
Federer’s movement has always been a vital factor in his dominance, giving him the ability to hit winners from what might be defensive positions for a less agile player. Against Tsonga, Federer’s defensive returns were swatted away, and the stunning winners never came.
“Except [for] the score, many many things went right,” Federer said after the match. “I thought I played a good match myself, I’m actually pretty pleased with my performance today…. At least it took him a very special performance today to beat me.”
It was a special performance by Tsonga, one in which he appeared to harness all of his talent for the first time in a Grand Slam since his breakout run to the Australian final in 2008.
Nonetheless, it was also a demonstration that Federer can no longer impose his will against all opponents not named Rafael Nadal. Even on Centre Court, even up two sets, the player of the decade is vulnerable, perhaps able to seize on chances given him but unable to create them himself the way he always could.
Checkmate – shah mat – is derived not from an Arabic phrase meaning “the King is dead,” according to recent scholarship, but rather from the Persian in which the more common meaning is that he is “stymied, thwarted, conquered.” This is more appropriate, since the king is the one chess piece that is never captured; the game ends as soon as such a result is inevitable.
So it is with the greats of tennis. There is no single knockout blow, just a slight and steady erosion of the talents that made them special. One day, almost without our realizing it, the king can no longer turn points around at will. He is stymied; he has lost the ability to escape jeopardy. It happened to McEnroe, to Connors, to Lendl, to Laver, and so on back to Budge and Tilden.
It’s been a grand and record-breaking run, but the Federer era is over. Mr. Nadal, your serve.