Commentary

Will fallen Federer ever be the same?

Updated: June 30, 2010, 2:21 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- The evidence, undeniable and increasingly inescapable, continues to mount.

After an unparalleled run of dominance, the 16-time Grand Slam singles champion appears to have slammed into the wall.

Roger Federer's serve isn't quite as irresistible, his footwork not as crisp, the volleys not quite as firm as they used to be. His marvelous, exquisite timing has gone missing. In the few moments that truly matter in a match, he has had difficulty summoning the spark that used to separate him from everyone else.

Federer, who turns 29 next month, won the Australian Open in January, but his attempts to defend his two 2009 major titles were anemic. He lost to Robin Soderling in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros, marking the first time in six years Federer failed to reach a semifinal at a major.

And then, on a bright, exceedingly pleasant Wednesday at the All England Club, it happened again. Federer fell to Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4.

That this wasn't considered an upset of great magnitude underlines just how swiftly Federer has fallen. After reaching a record 23 consecutive semifinals at the majors, Federer is suddenly 0-for-2.

"From my end, obviously, I'm unhappy with the way I'm playing," Federer said. "I am struggling with a little bit of a back and a [right] leg issue. It's frustrating to say the least. When you're hurting … you don't feel as comfortable. You can't concentrate on each and every point because you do feel the pain sometimes.

"Under the circumstances, I think I played a decent match. It's just not good and healthy to play under these kind of conditions."

Berdych did not seem too bothered with Federer's remarks.

"I don't know if he just looking for some excuses after the match or something like that," Berdych said. "I mean, it happened to all of us. I think he's been [100 percent] every time when he played [previously].

"So maybe right now he's getting some more troubles with the health. But I think it just happen today."

Federer was asked about the big hitters who have beaten him recently in majors -- Berdych, Soderling and Juan Martin del Potro -- and responded quickly, "Well, if I'm healthy, I can handle those guys."

He said he injured his leg nearly three weeks ago in the final at Halle, Germany, and added that his back has been stiff since then, too.

"The back tends to get stiff in grass-court season because you have to go for many more lower shots," Federer said. "You can't play freely. When you can't play freely, that's the kind of performance you get."

Those remarks, ESPN analyst Pam Shriver said, were "grumpier and less gracious than usual. I think he's on edge. I think internally, maybe he's a little bit uncomfortable because of the big question hanging over him.

"Is his career on the downside?"

[+] EnlargeTomas Berdych
Julian Finney/Getty ImagesTomas Berdych's win over Roger Federer represents a watershed moment in Berdych's career.

Berdych, who beat Federer earlier this year in the fourth round at Miami, was understandably ecstatic.

"It's amazing," he said. "To play on this stadium, to play such a great player as Roger is. To be a winner is really amazing for me."

For Berdych, a 24-year-old from the Czech Republic, it was the win of a lifetime. After going 26 major tournaments without passage to the semifinals, Berdych has done it twice in a row. This was the first time Berdych has beaten a Grand Slam singles champion in a major; he was 0-for-9 going in.

He was terrific under pressure, cashing four of six break points in the 2-hour, 35-minute match. Federer? He failed in seven of eight break opportunities and was dogged by atypical, random errors that suggested a lack of focus.

The quest to win a record-tying seventh Wimbledon title -- Pete Sampras (1993-95 and 1997-2000) and William Renshaw (1881-86, 1889) -- will have to begin again a year from now. Will Federer, based on what we saw this fortnight, be up to that daunting task?

His first two matches here were loaded with clues that this might happen. Federer dropped the first two sets to Alejandro Falla in the first round, and Falla actually served for the match. In the second round, Federer dropped another set -- to Ilija Bozoljac -- but stabilized after that, winning back-to-back straight-sets decisions.

The raw numbers continue to paint the portrait of decline:

• The loss to Berdych, ranked No. 13 among ATP World Tour players, ended a 42-0 streak for Federer at Wimbledon against players ranked outside the top 10. It also finished a 119-0 run in the Grand Slams, going to 2004 at Roland Garros, when he lost to Gustavo Kuerten.

• The last time Federer lost a set by the count of 6-1 on grass? Ten years ago in Nottingham, England, to Australian Richard Fromberg.

• The loss will drop Federer to No. 3 in the ATP rankings next week for the first time since late November 2003.

A two-game sequence in the final set defined the match.

Berdych, serving at 2-3, fell into a love-40 hole with two consecutive double faults. Two big serves and a sweet backhand volley winner bailed Berdych out, and when Federer pulled yet another forehand wide, it was 3-all.

In a wild, three-deuce game, Berdych broke Federer's serve with a marvelous running forehand that presented a forehand volley Federer couldn't execute.

"I think he went after it," Federer said of Berdych. "That's the way he plays; he's been able to play more consistent the last year or so. He was able to come up with some good stuff, you know. But I definitely gave away this match, I feel."

Federer said he was going on vacation for two weeks. In his postmatch news conference -- injury excuses aside -- he talked about unlucky bounces and strayed dangerously close to rationalization.

"Quarters is a decent result," Federer said. "Obviously, people think quarters is shocking, but people would die to play in quarterfinal stages of Grand Slam play. It's not something I'm used to doing, losing in quarterfinals, because it's not something I've done in the last six years.

"I think in Paris conditions were tough. Robin played fantastic. Today was different. I was struggling with my own game and with my physique. Yeah, I'm looking forward to a rest, and then attack again in North America."

Said Shriver, "Certainly, this is going to put a lot of pressure on him to put together a run at the [U.S.] Open. The thing is, he's already won a Slam this year, in Australia. In men's tennis, that's a good result.

"He's just set such a ridiculous pace -- two a year, three a year -- that he's really a victim of his own success."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.