LONDON – Decline and falling? Like the Roman Empire?
But one thing is clear. Roger Federer, the man who owned the green room – Centre Court at Wimbledon – will not be the centerpiece Sunday. After seven straight years of believing that this tennis court belonged to him, he was rudely evicted by a guy born in the Czech Republic village of Vallasske Mezerici and lives in Prostejov. Anybody who can spell or pronounce them should get a prize. (Like many other athletes, Tomas Berdych visits his money in Monte Carlo.)
There was no prize, however, for seemingly perpetual champ Federer – at least the one he lusted for: a seventh title. As his walls came tumbling down the Lord of the Swings had to settle for a quarter-final finish, as he did at the French Open. Good enough for most, but not the dispossessed Roger, the rajah of every land where tennis is played.
Was this really happening? Has the downer begun? This is his slowest start, after winning the Australian, his only title this year, he has lost eight singles matches.
Roger kept waiting for the Czech to choke.
But he might as well have waited for a bus to Scollay Square.
The Czech, ranked No. 13, had any number of chances to gargle, and was 2-8 in his previous dealings with Federer. I saw him shiver and quiver to defeat with a 2-set and service break lead over Federer at the Australian Open two years ago.
Different Tomas Berdych Wednesday in his 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4, triumph lamented by almost everybody in the full-house gathering of 14,971. It wasn’t exactly hostile territory for 24-year-old Tomas, only once as successful as a quarter-finalist in six previous visits. But Federer had presented such a regal air over the seven years that the clientele thought his empire would continue as long as he wished.
However, on view also was a different Federer, a frustrated guy with countenance often as cloudy as the sky. Of course the brilliance of his shotmaking was on view – but not enough – and he missed too many shots.
“When I had chances I played poorly,” Federer said. “It was brutal for me. Every time he had a chance he took it. He played great on the break points. I was uncomfortable. When you can’t play freely that’s the kind of performance you get.”
And you cash only one of eight break points, while Berdyich collects on four of six.
Ah, break points, those game-changers. In Berdych’s case, he stayed alive by squashing them at critical moments. A big guy (6-5) with a big flat forehand he frequently got the better of Federer in crosscourt duels. A winning forehand on the run gave Tomas the vital break to 4-3 in the fourth set.
What an adventure that last set was as Federer kept knocking at the door but couldn’t get in. Tomas held to 2-2 despite four deuces. His escape to 3-3 was memorable though ragged. He seemed to be surrendering to the pressure, double faulting twice, getting buried at 0-40, nevertheless dodging four break points, two deuces – and pierced Federer in the next game of four deuces.
Match game almost slipped away. Berdych said, “It was the toughest to close in all of my career. Against Roger Federer on Centre Court. Pretty tough. But I didn’t lost it” – though blowing the first match point. Federer pushed hard, had a break point, but Berdych pulled his nerves together, coaxed two errors from his foe and sealed it with a forehand winner.
Disappointing was Federer’s copping a bit of a plea, saying his back and right leg bothered him. It didn’t show. Berdych said losing players are always making excuses, but wasn’t concerned by Roger’s remarks, unseemly for a great champion..
His all-time greatness assured, Roger isn’t going to roll over and play dead, or take up bingo. He’s aiming for the 2012 Olympics – to be played at Wimbledon.
It was a wonderful win for the kid out of Valasske Mezirici, but he must contend with Novak Djokovic in tomorrow’s semi. Rafa Nadal, the 2008 champion goes against the great bright hope of Britain, Andy Murray.
Federer’s seven year final round reign is history. It started in 2003, a first title over Mark Philippoussis, then two over Andy Roddick, followed by two over Nadal, and Roddick again. He lost the 2008 final to Nadal topping by one year Bjorn Borg, 1976 – 81, and an ancient, Willie Renshaw, 1881 – 85.
Eviction isn’t pleasant, but as Bogie said to Ingrid, he’ll always have Wimbledon.