What's eating Roger Federer?
BEIJING -- The cinematic Roger Federer played the part of No. 1 like no other for four years, with the forehand of Zorro and lyrical moves, as a metro man confident enough to wear crested blazers and monogram cardigans courtside. His elite ranking was a perfect fit.
Now, nothing seems comfortable for Federer, as he goes squirming and twisting into his new life as No. 2 behind No. 1 Rafael Nadal when the ATP Tour rankings are released next week. It was another irritating night for Federer on Thursday, another what's-wrong-with-Fed? moment when he lost for the first time to American James Blake, 6-4, 7-6 (2), in the quarterfinals of Olympic competition.
It was a life-affirming win for Blake, who kissed the American flag sewn into his shirt after the last point. It was devastating for Federer, who hurried off the court, slipping by tennis officials with red eyes. He wanted a gold medal, and he wanted that yellow brick road to go through Nadal in the Beijing Games final.
With an Olympic title, Federer could find closure on the pain of losing an episodic Wimbledon final to Nadal. With a gold medal, Federer could reclaim his champion's gait after a season of jarring vulnerability. That dream scenario was getting way ahead of things, as Blake would prove with one driving forehand after another, leaving Federer visibly discombobulated. He talked to himself, challenged calls he was obviously wrong about and seemed mad at his suddenly slow feet.
Who was this cranky man? Federer hasn't been himself all year, left sluggish after a case of mononucleosis early in the season. But something else -- something less obvious -- has been amiss. Certainly, Nadal has played superior tennis, but Federer has also been beaten by the undercard talents. More and more, Federer appears winded by his greatness, worn out by the pressure to be perfect. "I honestly don't know how he's dealt with [being No. 1] for so long," Blake said.
Federer handled it well when he had no handlers. During his first year at the top, he was underexposed as a superstar, with no agent next to him in the player's box, with few magazine shoots on his to-do list. Then, he signed with IMG in the summer of 2005 to boost his profile, and agent Tony Godsick did his job well.
He capitalized on Federer's accessible persona, style and skills to place his client's clean image in the American conscious. He monetized Federer's magnetism. By '07, Federer's visibility was exploding. He was seen in the company of chic celebrities like Vogue editor Anna Wintour, and slipped in front of the camera on the set of commercials for Gillette. This year, he went globe-trotting to play exhibitions with Pete Sampras.
All the while, Federer has fancied his red-carpet existence and dug his debonair duds without ever turning into a diva, keeping his commitments to Tour tournament directors. Until this season, he looked like he could pull off the impossible: be all things to all people. Now he knows better.
"It's a lack of practice; I haven't had time to practice whatsoever since February," Federer conceded after losing to Blake for the first time in their nine matches. "I blame myself the most."
He didn't blame his agent or needy sponsors, fans or an insatiable media. But you could hear it in his voice: Multi-tasking has grown exhausting for Federer, particularly with the indefatigable Nadal having chased him down, especially with younger players less awed by his stature.
"It's been OK this year, but I agree that I'm not happy with it, with this tournament," Federer said. "I wish I would have done much more."
The U.S. Open is ahead of Federer, who said a good finish would "save my season." So far, he is without a title in all three of this year's Grand Slams tournaments and has fallen into beatable status, though his slip will not induce sympathy from his peers.
"I still have a ton of praise for him," said Blake. "I still have a ton of respect for him as a man. And as a player, he's still one of the best in the world, for sure. As far as if I feel sorry for him, I'm sure he's flying home on his private jet and he's doing OK for himself, seems to have his family happy and healthy around him. So I don't feel too sorry for him. And I think he's still gonna probably go down as the greatest of all time. I can't cry myself to sleep over Roger Federer."
Blake smiled as he talked, thinking it odd to be asked if he felt bad for a player who has enjoyed the top for so long. And to be sure, Federer may start dominating again if he can discover more time for his game, with less devotion to expanding his brand name appearance by appearance.
In November, Federer is scheduled to play an exhibition with Björn Borg in what could be yet another drain. He needs his energy to find the answers to Nadal, to regain his confidence, to rediscover what it's like at No. 1. After all, he can't wear a crested blazer as a No. 2. It's not a good look.