- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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For the sixth time this year, Roger Federer failed to win a tennis tournament. And so for the sixth time, the media's forensic psychologists tried to get a fix on the 27-year-old champion's bruised psyche.
"I've gotten used to winning tournaments, and then leaving a tournament having lost just leaves a bitter taste, obviously," Federer told reporters Saturday in Rome. "It doesn't take me long to get over it, but in the moment itself it's just not really fun because it's just these kind of matches I feel like I should have won here, and I end up losing them.
"I usually don't give away opportunities like this."
Federer won the first set of his semifinal match against Novak Djokovic, but after forging service breaks early in the second and third sets, he ultimately fell 6-4, 3-6, 3-6. It was, tellingly, Federer's first loss to Djokovic on clay. More unsettling was the way he lost.
Federer was up 3-1 in the final set, but three consecutive unforced errors handed Djokovic the opportunity to break back and draw even. Moreover, Federer's backhand all but evaporated. He simply, sadly, unraveled.
Afterward, Federer said that an hourlong rain delay during the second set "kind of definitely" changed the match's momentum. His serve was broken five times in the final two sets.
"I have the feeling that maybe since I had the back problem, my serve is just not working to where I want it to be," Federer said. "It maybe could have saved me a few times and it didn't, so that's something I have to make sure I can fix for Paris."
Rain, bad back, indifferent serve -- to some, those will kind of definitely sound like excuses. For Federer, they were rational explanations for this very specific loss. But with the French Open only a few weeks away, there is a larger, more troubling picture developing.
With the loss to Djokovic, Federer is now an astonishing 0 for his last 11 in matches against his three closest rivals atop the tennis food chain: Rafael Nadal (0-5), Andy Murray (0-4) and Djokovic (0-2).
So when does an anomaly become a trend?
"That's a good question," Paul Annacone said on Monday.
Annacone has rare insight into Federer's struggles; he coached Pete Sampras -- the man to whom Federer is most often compared -- for eight years. Today, Annacone is the coach of men's tennis for the Lawn Tennis Association, Great Britain's version of the USTA. He remembers the drought that followed Sampras' triumph at Wimbledon in 2000 -- 26 months and 33 tournaments without lifting a trophy -- before he won his 14th and final major, the 2002 U.S. Open.
"You're in that same press conference over and over again," Annacone said. "When are you going to win again? Are you a step slower? Now that you're married, are you thinking about stopping? Negative questions every week.
"I don't care who you are, it's going to affect you. It might not be much, but that 2 percent can make a difference. And then Pete's losing to Wayne Arthurs. A lot of people can look at the tennis, but very few people can look at the man, assess the issues in his life, the chronology of events in his career and say definitively, 'Here's what's wrong.'"
Annacone has a little more than a year left on his contract with the LTA, but he seems uniquely qualified to navigate Federer's course toward the end of his career. He says he hasn't talked with Federer, who has been searching for a full-time coach since his four-year association (2000 to '03) with Peter Lundgren. According to Annacone, there are probably "4 million" applicants for the job.
"You can't just put anyone in there and have it work," Annacone said. "Ultimately, it's up to the player. You have someone who is steel-willed and incredibly confident and incredibly stubborn as well. You have to have buy-in.
"Roger is similar to Pete in so many tactical and technical ways. The first four, five years he killed everybody, but didn't necessarily get any better. If you don't see the urgency, you probably aren't going to get better."
It's safe to say Federer is starting to feel that sense of urgency. His last tournament title came in his hometown of Basel, Switzerland, in October 2008. Since then, he has gone 0-for-8. His record this year is 21-6. For context, consider that from 2004 to 2007 he averaged six losses a season.
Nadal (38-3) and Murray (29-4) have separated themselves from the field.
"When Rafa started to play so well, I said, 'Terrific, now Roger has to get better,'" Annacone said. "That's a problem for some people, but not guys like Roger, who have so many tools. Roger feels it, but I'm not sure he knows exactly how to go about doing it.
"His life is more complicated now -- he just got married and he's about to become a father. But, just as in Pete's case, those aren't reasons that he's not winning. They're components of your life that you have to deal with. Roger sees it, but he just hasn't found the right balance yet."
It was during an eight-month sabbatical from Annacone when Sampras suffered one of his most crushing defeats in 2002. The seven-time Wimbledon champion lost at the All England Club to George Bastl, ranked No. 145, in the second round. A few weeks and several heart-to-heart talks later, the two were reunited and Sampras went on to win the U.S. Open.
As things stand, that unlooked-for victory is all that separates Sampras and Federer in terms of majors.
Sampras was 31 when he won his final Open, meaning Federer probably has something approaching a four-year window to surpass him.
"I'd be shocked if he doesn't win more Grand Slam titles," Annacone said. "If he has any of the same drive that Pete had, I'd be absolutely shocked. They're wired differently than most players. They expect to win -- no matter what the circumstances.
"Look at talent level and what he's able to produce. Take all those ingredients and corral them, manage them just a little better, and he can win again."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.