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Is the Roger Federer era over?
Is this the end of an era? Roger Federer, who has become a fixture in Wimbledon finals — winning six of the last seven — was soundly beaten Wednesday on Centre Court by the strapping Czech, Tomas Berdych, who pummeled the great Swiss into submission 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4.
As the 24-year-old Detroit Red Wings fan lit up the arena with a movie-star smile, Federer turned just once to acknowledge the applause of a disbelieving crowd and then disappeared through that doorway over which hangs Rudyard Kipling’s lines about treating triumph and disaster just the same.
It has become increasingly difficult for Federer to do that. Few can comprehend what it must be like to have been so good, so majestic, so dominant at a sport as demanding as tennis and then find that the powers begin to wane. There are those who will say that he should have shut up about his aches and pains when he appeared, red-eyed, at his press conference half an hour after leaving the court.
But, instead, he talked for the first time about the problems he has been having with a pain in his right leg and stiffness in his back.
“I couldn’t play the way I wanted to play,” he said. “You know, I am struggling with a little bit of a back and leg issue.”
He said that the leg problem started when he lost in the final of Halle in Germany last month and has come and gone since. The back, apparently, has been stiff for the past six days.
“You know, you just don’t feel as comfortable,” he added. “You can’t concentrate on each point and then you tend to play differently than the way you want to play.”
From the way all this was relayed to Berdych at his press conference through reporters hoping for a nasty retort from the Czech, it would have appeared that Federer had nothing nice to say about his opponent. That was not quite true.
“He played well when he had to,” Federer had said. “It was brutal for me. Every time he had a chance, he took it. On those break points (at 0-40 in the sixth game of the fourth set) he played great on those.”
Berdych has been around long enough now not to take the bait, and he was as non-committal as he could be when asked about Federer’s comments.
“I don’t know if he’s just looking for excuses,” said Berdych. “I mean, it’s happened to all of us. So maybe right now he’s getting some more troubles with his health. So, yeah, just hope he’s going to get back soon and that’s what I can wish him.”
Berdych was more willing to talk about what it felt like to beat the six-time champion on Centre Court: “It was the toughest match to close (out) in my career,” he said. “Against Roger on the Centre Court in Wimbledon. It’s pretty tough. But, you know, I handle it pretty well. It was really great. Not many other moments can be comparing with this one. It couldn’t be, I would say, better.”
Then, on reflection, he added, “But still there is one match to be better feelings than this one. I hope I can get to that. We will see.”
After a display like this, all things are possible for Berdych. He will play Novak Djokovic on Friday for a place in what would be the first Grand Slam final of his career. Djokovic was never seriously extended by Yen-Hsun Lu of Tapei, the solid ground-stroker who had upset Andy Roddick in the previous round. The Serb came through 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 and said he was playing great.
“Right now I think I am raising my confidence level and performance level match after match," Djokovic said. "This is very encouraging at this stage of the tournament.”
Berdych, however, will present a very different set of problems to Lu. The Czech is a tall and extremely well muscled young man who has been growing into his body and realizing its possibilities in the last few months that have seen him beat Federer from match point down in Miami and then outhit Andy Murray on his way to reaching the semifinal of the French Open (where Robin Soderling beat him) without dropping a set.
Tennis is a game of confidence, and now that Berdych has begun to realize just how much game he has, he is beginning to impose it on big players to devastating effect.
His recent successes enabled him to walk on court against Federer and attack the champion at every opportunity. He served big and hit blistering forehands whenever Federer gave him a look. After the Swiss came back into the match, offering some of the silky movement and shot-making that has brought him so many titles here to win the second set, Berdych could have allowed the occasion to overwhelm him.
But he is no longer the callow youth who won an ATP Masters Series title indoors in Paris in 2005. He had little idea of what he had achieved that week as he beat five top 10 players en route to the title. Now he is a proper match player who understands the need to stick to a game plan if it has shown signs of working, and this is exactly what he did, powering his way through that third set, forcing Federer into error after error on the forehand, to take it 6-1.
Everything could have changed when he double faulted twice to go 0-40 down at 2-3 in the fourth. But, in what might be viewed now as a match-saving moment, Berdych bent low to play the sweetest of cross-court volleys off a trademark Federer forehand that was whistling on its intended way down the line to get to deuce.
Still, Federer claimed another break point, but Berdych saved that with an ace and, having held for 3-3, made the decisive breakthrough in the next game.
Forehand errors had put Federer under pressure and, having saved one break point at 30-40, he did himself no favors by reaching tardily for a backhand and sending it wide. Break point down again, he could only lunge at Berdych’s brilliant whipped forehand cross-court and put his volley wide.
As a final gesture, Federer saved the first match point with a backhand volley winner and then had the big Czech sprawling on his baseline at deuce. But Federer couldn’t convert the break point, netting a second serve with a weak forehand and that just about summed up his afternoon.
A great champion has moved from center stage into the history books. He insists he will be back. But will we ever see the real Roger Federer again?