Posted: Tue September 3, 2013 5:58PM; Updated: Tue September 3, 2013 7:04PM
Jon Wertheim
Jon Wertheim>TENNIS MAILBAG

Federer faces new challenge in rediscovering magic of his game

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Roger Federer
This marks the first year since 2002 that Roger Federer won't make a Grand Slam final.
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

NEW YORK -- Victoria Azarenka was pushed to three sets against Ana Ivanovic. Lleyton Hewitt pressed on with his pugnacious tennis, but fell in a heartbreaker to Mikhail Youzhny. Li Na reached the semifinals for the first time, beating Ekaterina Makarova. But the talk of the U.S. Open and the tennis social media-verse on Tuesday still centered on Roger Federer.

He is the spindle on which the sport of tennis spins, and when he is off his axis, the entire sport follows. Federer's fourth-round loss to Tommy Robredo -- yet another dismal defeat this summer, another indication that his game is eroding -- continued to transfix and unsettle Tennis Nation.

What's wrong with Federer? The diagnoses are varied: It's the handiwork of the sadistic bastard, Father Time. It's Federer's bad back, which is worse than he lets on. It's Federer's stubbornness, especially his refusal to ditch that puny 90-inch racket, the equivalent of dial-up Internet. It's Federer's shattered confidence. It's the bad tactics -- that insistence on being aggressive when he's missing his target by vast distances -- which might be the product of bad coaching. It's too many off-court burdens. It's the rest of the field, which has finally caught up. His aura, good for a few games each set, is gone.

It all underscores just how much Federer -- like all top players -- had to master during his most successful years. Self-belief, health, racket technology, personnel, strategy -- they're all essential parts. It also underscores why tennis is so tough and unforgiving. It seems like a simple sport: Master a few strokes, aim the ball in those boxes, calibrate accuracy and power, rinse and repeat. But so much can go wrong.

Any and all of the above -- in various combinations and permutations -- could be to blame for Federer's decline. But at the same time, none could. Coach Paul Annacone may be taking a beating in the players' lounge Tuesday, but wasn't he there when Federer won Wimbledon 14 months ago? Darren Cahill and Chris Evert both encouraged Federer to switch to a bigger racket, which makes sense. But Federer already tried to switch this summer and the results were disastrous. Sure, the rest of the field may be catching up. But Robredo, Federer's conquistador on Labor Day, is a thirty-something peer, not an upstart. The bad back? Just two days ago, Federer told Tennis Channel that he was feeling healthy and that, for the first time this summer, he wasn't stressing his back injury.

What plagues Federer is more abstract. He just doesn't have IT. If the magic isn't gone, it's wildly erratic. There's no more of that dream-like state in which Federer used to play. As one reader astutely noted, it's not he has merely been displaced from his comfort zone; he has been displaced from The Zone. He used to hit targets only he could see. Now, he misses the mark. He used to hit the right shots at the right time. Now, he goes 2-for-16 on break point conversions, as he did against Robredo. He used to aggress and defend at the ideal times. Now, he attacks at strange intervals, and then slices when he should fire away. There is a rhythm and synchronicity that's gone. He is, in a word, mortal.

JENKINS: Federer remains tormented by self-doubt after U.S. Open loss

The question is, Now what? Some think he's done and only the delusional would contend otherwise. Others -- myself included -- think he has more good tennis left in him, especially if can conjure some magic again.

Monday night, someone optimistic yet realistic stated that Federer would have to put in the work "and go after it." After a disappointing match, the person said, there was even something exciting about this new challenge. You can hear the rest of this wise man's assessment here.

Mailbag

Chris Evert said something interesting about Federer after his loss to Robredo: That he has always been able to rely on his unparalleled talent, but now that he's a step slower, he needs to learn how to grind it out like the rest of the field. How hard would it be for Federer to make that transition? Or is he too committed to his own style of play?
-- Yves, Montreal

• That's an astute point from Chris. (I can't bring myself to call her Chrissie, ESPN graphics notwithstanding.) I think it's too glib to say, "Federer relied on talent." You don't win 17 majors just by coasting on gifts. Richard Gasquet can attest to that. But grinding in the manner of Lleyton Hewitt or competing as if points carry a price in blood, a la Rafael Nadal? That's just not Federer's way. Can he adjust his thinking now, almost convincing himself that he's the underdog? We'll see.

I was a little bummed to see some of the talented younger women players (especially Simona Halep, Camila Giorgi and Alison Riske) dispatched in the fourth round, but I can't help but feel a little pride in the seasoned veterans who moved into the quarters. Taken together, Serena Williams, Li Na, Roberta Vinci, Daniela Hantuchova and Flavia Pennetta must comprise the oldest lineup of U.S. Open quarterfinalists ever! As a 31-year-old myself, I say give these ladies a big hand and a goodie bag of early '80s delights (perhaps a VHS of Flashdance, a pair of leg warmers and a six-pack of orange soda?).
-- Jason M., Lincoln, Neb.

• Yes, Federer notwithstanding, it's been another nice event for the thirty-something crowd. At some point, though -- not unlike our view of American tennis -- we need to readjust expectations. The field is aging. Thirty is the new 20. We should no longer be impressed when players leave their 20s and still have success. (Kimiko Date-Krumm at 42? She impresses. Diana Nyad? Impressive!) Another reason not to panic about Federer quite yet..

A rebuttal to the comment about singles players being better than Bob and Mike Bryan. In the Olympics, most top players played doubles and the Bryans were able to take home gold? With the way most top players avoid the net like it's the plague, doubles is not an easy game for them. Saying that singles players would win easily is an insult to great doubles players like the Bryans, Daniel Nestor, Leander Paes, etc.
-- Bryan, Carmel, CA

• I think the point was that if two singles players pair together week in, week out -- as they did in the olden days, taking the Pony Express to matches -- perhaps they would beat the Bryans. As it stands, the Bryans have proved that they can beat shotgun teams of superior singles players.

I noticed after the Serena Williams-Sloane Stephens match that Serena allowed Sloane to shake the umpire's hand first. Given how much she usually jumps to shake the ump's hand first (especially versus Maria Sharapova), what would we read into that? Venus doesn't even get to shake the umpire's hand first, so I doubt it was out of respect for Sloane. It read more to me as a queen bee conceding just a bit, but only out of the satisfaction of how marvelously she's handled everything Sloane-related since the Australian Open.
-- Zach, Boston, Mass.

• Before Federer's defeat, Sloane beating Serena to the umpire's chair was the upset of the tournament.

Does anyone hate U.S. Open rain delays more than Aaron Krickstein?
-- Daniel R.

• I liked the CBS play Monday: Instead of replaying an entire match -- and we know which one it inevitably would be -- we got an amalgam of compelling tiebreakers. Aaron Krickstein sleeps easy.

Shots, miscellany

• Robert of Toronto: "Can we please have a mandatory retirement for media asking about when a player is retiring, and who is the favorite, both for individual matches and for the whole tournament? Predictions are fun and analysis is interesting, but the constant games between media and player is tiresome and pointless, and insulting to fans. Banning these two topics in the media room would go a long way to making way for more interesting questions and discussions."

• Helen of Philadelphia: "A couple more unique aspects to the Bryan brothers' success -- both related to the 'twin' thing. First, they're family. They know that when their careers end, they'll still be family and they'll still see each other all the time. And so while they often mention spatting with each other when they play, they also know they'll never not be brothers. And at this point, I'm pretty sure that neither one will ever dump the other for another partner. Teams that form strategically or just for convenience will never have that kind of bond. Example: Imagine how much more dominant Leander Paes-Mahesh Bhupathi could have been if they just could have stuck together.

"And second, the Bryans are the same age. How many great teams in recent years have featured one older and one younger player? Daniel Nestor-Vasek Pospisil being an extreme example. And so even if a team has a run of success (think Jonas Bjorkman-Max Mirnyi), eventually the older one retires and then the younger one is left to hunt for a new partner."

• Benjamin Bittner of Wisconsin: "You asked who Frank Parker is? Well, here's Frank Parker."

• Russianista of Washington, D.C.: "Reader Mike K. isn't the only one who noticed the curious case of Denis Istomin and Andreas Seppi playing a lot at Grand Slams. I did, too! Can we give a shout-out to Istomin's effort on reaching the fourth round, where he'll play Andy Murray? He beat two seeded players (Nicolas Almagro and Seppi) on the way there."

American Masters Billie Jean King premieres nationally on Sept. 10 at 8 p.m. on PBS.

• Daniel Morrison of Harrisburg, Pa. has long-lost siblings: Tommy Robredo and actor Dylan McDermott.

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