Unfolding sadness and that certainty - What the master’s loss means

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By SIMON BARNES THE TIMES, LONDON
  • Published 28.06.13
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Roger Federer after winning his first Wimbledon beating Australia’s Mark Philippoussis in 2003. Getty Images

It had to come some day, but the fact that it was inevitable didn’t make it any less of a shock. Roger Federer, the greatest male tennis player of all time, lost at Wimbledon.

Not lost, but was humiliated, going out in the second round to a Ukrainian ranked No. 116 in the world. An era ended with a great howl of disbelief on Wednesday evening on Centre Court.

Sergiy Stakhovsky won 6-7, 7-6, 7-5, 7-6 and played the match of his life as he did so. Where the hell did it come from? Stakhovsky clearly had no idea and for Federer it struck like lightning from a clear sky.

How does someone with a three-figure ranking suddenly step on court and start serving like God and volleying like the Holy Ghost?

Something to do with the Centre Court, I suppose; you never know how that's going to affect people. Small players shrivel up and die, great players find that its unique ambience allows them to reach their full powers - and some odds and sods find that this rum old place turns them into someone else for a few hours.

It was an occasion that mixed glorious and dismal in equal parts.

It was desperate to see Federer looking rattled, still more desperate to see Federer groping for his A-game and failing to find it, but it was glorious to watch the beneficiary of Centre Court stardust seizing his day with such aplomb.

It is not as if Federer were beaten by some brilliant new talent, oozing youth and promise and looking likely to win Grand Slam tournaments for years to come. Stakhovsky is 27, an established and articulate voice in the game, and a decent talent, but nothing special.

He came out with a decidedly retro game, a one-handed backhand and a pronounced taste for following the big serve with a volley. I had often wondered what would have happened if Federer had played Pete Sampras when both were at the peak of their powers. Now I have some kind of idea.

The serve was not super-colossal, but it was vindictively accurate. And the weird thing was that it remained so throughout the match. Federer could not break it until the fourth set, when he was a break down himself.

That happened when Stakhovsky got tight, suddenly aware that the most colossal upset lay before him. He flirted with the choke, but his recovery was worthy of a champion.

Federer has the game to beat him all right, but it just wasn’t there. Time and again he would pass Stakhovsky at the net and put the ball long, or beat Stakhovsky on the angle and find the net. It grew painful to watch, a defeat that was agony for us spectators. It was like a great philanderer trying all his best chat-up lines, unaware that the only reason the girl smiled is because she thinks he knows her father.

It had to come; I just didn’t want to be there when it did. This was Federer’s 15th Wimbledon; it’s the tenth anniversary of his first victory here, when he wore a ponytail and played tennis from the fourth dimension.

He went on to dominate Wimbledon and the world, doing so at times in long trousers and a blazer. It would have been a bit de trop for anybody else but this was Rodge. This time he wore illegal shoes and had to change them for ones without orange soles. He also wore a white jacket that gave him the look of a pox-doctor’s clerk. I never felt confident of the result when I saw that jacket.

He remains perhaps the greatest master of his sport any of us has seen, bestriding tennis as Bradman once bestrode cricket. Who can we compare him to? Michael Schumacher for dominance, but Schumacher had a machine to do the hard work. Lance Armstrong? Certainly not. Tiger Woods? Perhaps, but golf is a still-ball game and can’t be compared to a game that requires physical fitness.

Besides, Federer’s dominance was not just of result. He was master of the game itself, master of every nuance. Tennis balls obeyed him as dogs obey their masters. He could be beaten, but not outplayed. He used his No. 1 ranking like a sword. “You have to play Roger and Roger’s ego,” Stakhovsky said.

There is always a reaction when great champions start to lose matches they would once have won in comfort. It seems like an insult to their own glorious past, to our own glorious memories. Come on, hang up your boots, the game’s been good to you. “I still have plans to play on for many, many years,” Federer said.

So we have to brace ourselves for an unfolding sadness: for further experiences of Roger failing again to be the Roger of the glory years. Respect the things that make such a man carry on: relish for the struggle, sheer love of the game itself, glorious self-deluding ambition, and behind all that, the certainty that nothing will be as good ever again.

Ah, that terrible ballooning backhand error on match point. And Federer, the great Roger Federer, the Harry Potter of the Centre Court, standing there looking like a muggle. We shan’t see his like again. Not even when he next plays tennis.