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Heed the wounded lion: Roger Federer has been here before

Marianne Bevis
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Federer has played in every Wimbledon final since 2003 (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

There was a time—and not so long ago—when Roger Federer seemed to be hewn from a different substance than mere mortals.

His body seemed untouched by stress, injury and fatigue. His resolve seemed impervious to challenge, to self-doubt, or to pain. His position as king of the castle, fending off all assaults, seemed impenetrable.

But the time had to come—and Wednesday seemed to be moment when the world’s media affirmed it—when he could hold off the barrage no longer.

The scene of the regicide—for that is how it felt—was his Centre Court at his most-favoured event.

In truth, the lead in to this year’s Championships had not been the most auspicious. Federer has failed to win a title since his surging late run at the Australian Open. Such was his performance in that final—close to his finest, most silky, most tactically astute form—that the whispers about his growing vulnerability to a number of players were silenced.

He was then struck down by a lung infection that brought an enforced month’s rest, so his early exits from the two big Masters in North America were accepted with a shrug.

Small alarm bells began to ring, however, with the arrival of the clay season. In Rome, he fell at the first hurdle against the dangerous Ernest Gulbis, who advanced deep into the draw. In the modest 250 event at Estoril, Federer lost in the semis to Albert Montanes.

Whether it was due to the lingering effects of his illness or his under-cooked preparation through the spring, Federer’s armour was being pierced by men against whom he had not lost in years: Nikolay Davydenko, Marcos Baghdatis, Tomas Berdych and now Montanes.

In Madrid, things improved, but so had Rafael Nadal since their 2009 meeting. There has been no holding the Spaniard since the extended rehab of his knees and the retooling of his game. Federer relinquished his title.

Then came Roland Garros. Federer’s progress would determine whether he could hold onto his No.1 ranking, and that would determine whether he could take Pete Sampras’s record for total weeks at the top.

He lost for the first time in 13 meetings to Robin Soderling in the quarter-finals. His extraordinary run of 23 Slam semis was halted and he was one week short, at 285, of the Sampras record.

The next blow came on the grass of Halle, where Federer had never been beaten until Lleyton Hewitt got the better of him for the first time since 2003.

Then it was Wimbledon, and what has become death by a thousand cuts. And the cuts have been as much from outside knives as from on-court opponents.

Take the first press conference after Federer’s comeback over an opponent playing a purple patch and then some: “Nice escape Roger” and “It looked like your level of energy was very low.”

Round two, and another dropped set to an on-fire opponent: “Is it strange to drop three sets in the opening two games?”

The third, an easy straight sets win: “Was it a relief to get an easy match?”

The fourth, an even more straight forward win: “You came out missing a few serves.”

But one question also touched on the issue that would eventually deliver the deepest cut: “Any concerns about your fitness?” It related to the strapping on his thigh in the second round. He confirmed he was carrying a strain, but that it was under control.

Come second Wednesday, and Federer’s mention of that sore leg and the return of his niggling back strain, and the media descended like a pack of wolves. Federer was, judging from judiciously edited radio and broadsheet features, finding ways to undermine the Berdych win. And this is the familiar pattern.

Cast back to his semi-final exit in Melbourne 2008, followed by the loss of Wimbledon and his No.1 ranking to Nadal. That he had contracted glandular fever became a footnote in the proceedings.

At the start of 2009, he lost the Australian final to Nadal, lost his rag in Miami with a broken racket, but was nursing a major back problem that took six weeks of rehab to remedy.

At the US Open—with the French and Wimbledon titles behind him—the focus after a tough five-set loss was on a brief (and legitimate) outburst at the referee over his opponent’s challenges.

How much of that frustration may have come from tiredness was never raised though he was, by now, on the road with two six-week old babies.

It has the nature of 21st century news, a climate of ‘build them up so you can knock them down’. Dig the knife in and generate some more headlines. And with this Wimbledon loss, Federer is returned to the same story that he highlighted after winning in SW19 last year. He talked of his surprise at how quickly the press had written him off after his slow start to 2009.

Federer extended considerably more courtesy to his fellow players in Wednesday’s press conference than has been inferred by the selective quoting in the media.

When offered the proposition that Murray could win because the “other threatening players had not performed so well this year,” he slid his own stiletto into the press: “…true, Rafa played terribly lately; Soderling is not a threat either. [Murray’s] got an easy ride to this victory, that’s for sure. Djokovic can’t play tennis anymore it seems like. Got to make your own work, please. Respect the players.”

Perhaps this was a glancing comment on how they might also treat Federer. Accept that he can be injured, and allow him to say so when questioned about it—as he was repeatedly.

Allow him to have bad matches, bad tournaments, bad seasons. Otherwise, be prepared to eat humble pie when he comes back and wins his next Major—probably at Flushing Meadow this September.

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