Australian Open: Roger Federer’s genius slipping away
Time waits for no man, not even a sporting superhero like Roger Federer.
The greatest player ever to wield a tennis racket suffered one of his most devastating defeats here last night as Novak Djokovic won their Australian Open semi-final 7-6, 7-5, 6-4.
With a crestfallen Rafael Nadal already on his way home after his defeat 24 hours earlier, it was a result that perhaps signalled an end to the duopoly that has ruled tennis for a generation.
In Sunday's final Djokovic will meet the winner of today's second semi-final between Andy Murray and David Ferrer.
It will be only the second Grand Slam final for six years — following the 2008 Australian Open when Djokovic beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga — that has not featured Federer or Nadal, who between them have won 21 of the last 23 majors.
While nobody should write off 24-year-old Nadal, provided he can avoid the injuries that have punctuated his career in recent times, the years appear to be catching up with 29-year-old Federer. Defeat here means that for the first time since 2003 the 16-times Grand Slam champion does not hold one of the game's major crowns.
It was his second successive defeat to Djokovic in a Grand Slam semi-final and the fourth major tournament in succession where he has not made the final.
Murray still has much work to do before he can think about reaching the final for the second year in succession, but it says everything about Federer's decline that Djokovic's victory may actually have hampered the Scot's chances. Djokovic has won four of his seven matches against Murray, but they have not met for nearly two years.
Having ended last season by running Nadal close in the US Open final and leading his country to victory in the Davis Cup, the 23-year-old Serb has been in the form of his life at the event where he won his only Grand Slam title three years ago.
If last night's contest did not match the magnificent drama of their US Open semi-final, when Federer lost in five sets after scorning two match points, that was only because of the gap that Djokovic appears to have put between himself and the Swiss.
The world No 3 served well at the vital moments and played a smart game tactically, targeting the Federer backhand in the way that Nadal has done to such good effect. Federer, whose movement seemed more laboured than usual, made a growing number of errors, especially on his backhand.
The ultimate king of cool was also sweating profusely, while Djokovic looked fresh even at the end of their three-hour contest.
Djokovic was never afraid to go head-to-head with the Swiss on the latter's favourite flank. Federer's forehand has long been regarded as the greatest shot in tennis, but there were occasions when Djokovic more than matched him.
When the two men got involved in a hitting match from the baseline it was normally the Serb who came out on top.
Federer scorned the only break point of the first set in the opening game and it was Djokovic, having won the tie-break 7-3, who drew first blood in what proved to be a pivotal second set. Federer, changing tactics by varying the pace of his shots, won four games in a row to take a 5-2 lead, only for Djokovic to respond in exhilarating fashion by winning five games in succession as he drew his opponent back into a slugging contest.
Djokovic saved three break points in the second game of the third set before breaking to lead 2-1. Federer levelled at 4-4, only for Djokovic to break back immediately as the Swiss put a tired backhand in the net.
The Serb served out for victory in the following game, converting his third match point with a service winner.
“That's one of the best matches I've played,” Djokovic said afterwards. “In the second set I was 5-2 down. If I had lost that set God knows what direction the match would have taken.”
Federer said Djokovic had played “a great match” and had deserved to win. “I didn't think I played badly myself,” he added. “I feel very good. I'm very optimistic.”
Federer has never been one to lack confidence in his ability. The rest of the world might take some convincing that we have already seen the best of him.