Big Two troubles signal change
MELBOURNE, Australia -- The balance of power in men's tennis is shifting, or at least at this year's Australian Open.
A day after Rafael Nadal's left hamstring wreaked havoc in a straight-sets loss to David Ferrer, ending his chances of completing the "Rafa Slam," Roger Federer was ousted by a resurgent Novak Djokovic, 7-6 (3), 7-5, 6-4, in the semifinals.
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Entering the season, only once since the 2005 Australian Open had Federer or Nadal not appeared in a major final. They've been that good, that dominant.
In an uplifting omen for Djokovic, it was the Serb who appeared in that showpiece, beating Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in 2008 for his first and only Grand Slam crown.
And guess what? It was here in Melbourne.
"I think we're in a golden era, where you're going to have Federer and Nadal viable for a long time, but then you're also going to have this next group of guys," said Justin Gimelstob, an analyst with the Tennis Channel.
When Federer was asked if a passing of the torch was under way, he scoffed.
"Let's talk again in six months," he said.
Djokovic next meets either Ferrer or Andy Murray in the final. In his current form, Djokovic will be tough to stop. He's still riding the wave of leading Serbia to its first Davis Cup title in December.
"It was really hard to challenge [Nadal and Federer], especially in the big events where they play their best tennis," Djokovic said. "Now these things are changing a little bit. From that perspective, it's good for the sport."
Djokovic, cheered by compatriot and occasional doubles partner Ana Ivanovic at Rod Laver Arena, has worn the colors of Serbia this fortnight, probably giving him a further boost. Ivanovic, as well as Team Djokovic, was all smiles. Ivanovic congratulated Djokovic afterwards near the locker room, chatting for a few minutes.
"He was in control," Ivanovic said. "That's how it felt."
Federer's box wasn't in great spirits.
This was supposed to be the Grand Slam at which the Swiss, who's gunning for his 17th major title, reasserted his authority. His play since failing to convert two match points against Djokovic in the U.S. Open semifinals five months ago suggested as much.
Federer had won 31 of his previous 33 matches, including an impressive 15 in a row. During that glittering spell, Federer downed Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and Robin Soderling, his most threatening rivals.
"It's not the end in any way," Federer said. "It's a start for many other tournaments after this. Sure, it's disappointing, and it hurts in the moment itself. I wish I could have won here again for the fifth time. But it wasn't possible."
Co-coach Paul Annacone, who enjoyed success with the likes of Pete Sampras and Tim Henman, instilled a more aggressive approach for Federer, while also helping his pupil unleash his extensive repertoire. The backhand became stronger, the serve clicked.
This week, Annacone said Federer's second-round, five-set scare against Gilles Simon might not have been a bad thing. Federer has previously had close calls in the first week of majors and then marched through the draw.
Federer's Grand Slam quarterfinal streak is alive and well at 27, but more importantly to the 29-year-old, he hasn't landed in a Grand Slam final since thrashing Murray in Melbourne 12 months ago.
Not much separated the two Thursday, despite the three-set sweep. On the other hand, Djokovic triumphed on the big points, something Federer has been so accustomed to throughout his career.
Djokovic's coach, Marian Vajda, has spoken of his pupil's improved serve. Sure enough, he won the first 16 points behind his first serve.
The only trouble came in the opening game, as Djokovic was forced to save a break point with a thunderous forehand.
Djokovic wasn't content to hang behind the baseline throughout the match, taking the initiative and moving Federer around when given the opportunity.
The Federer backhand collapsed in the tiebreaker. Three times he erred on that wing, and 28 times over three sets. Djokovic made 35 unforced errors -- altogether.
Coasting, up a break in the second set, Djokovic let Federer off the hook by making four unforced errors in the fourth game. Federer raced to a 5-2 lead.
Comeback time? Nope.
Not very often has Federer lost five games in a row, but it happened.
"Every time I had a slight opportunity, either I didn't play my best or he played his best," Federer said. "It was a tough night from that standpoint."
Federer took a toilet break at the end of the set.
When he returned, he tried to be more aggressive in the opening stages, thumping a cross-court forehand, which aroused the fans, in a marathon Djokovic service game. Later in the same game, however, Djokovic responded with a monster forehand of his own.
Federer pulled level at 4-4, yet, to sum up his evening, was broken for 5-4. Djokovic, shaky on his first two match points, converted the third to complete the job.
Federer's next Slam is the French Open, and given Nadal's dominance at Roland Garros, he won't be favored there.
Once again, he'll look for relief at Wimbledon, a long five months away.
Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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