Doubts creeping in after Roger Federer fails to make it to the quarterfinals in successive Slams

One earthquake per night is enough for any city. So, while New York was still reeling from the seismic ripple of Roger Federer's failure to make the quarterfinals of the US Open for the first time since 2003, Rafael Nadal was doing his best to restore calm. And, although it took him four sets to discourage the talented Philipp Kohlschreiber, at least he is still in the tournament. The odds of Federer adding to his tally of five trophies here are as long as Gareth Bale returning to Spurs.

The moment now belongs to Tommy Robredo.

“It's amazing. For me, Roger, for the moment, is the best player of all times. And to beat him in a huge stadium like the US Open and in a Grand Slam, a match of five sets, it's like a dream, no? I am so, so happy.”

Never the less, the presiding sentiment was not to embrace the underdog but to dwell on the grim reality that there is change in the air. This is an era slowly ebbing into the history books. Federer and Nadal have never met in the US Open and the widespread anticipation of returning one more time to the greatest rivalry in the history of tennis was shattered when Robredo, the 19th seed, gutted it out to embarrass Federer in straight sets.

Robredo had not even come close to beating Federer in 10 encounters. Roger had his number — and he was in sublime form. He said, too, that his back was just fine. How could he not swat away a solid but predictable opponent?

Put it this way: Kohlschreiber is a better player on this surface than Robredo, but Nadal beat him, going away, 6-7(4), 6-4, 6-3, 6-1. Nadal recovered from his rough start by waiting, by fighting through long rallies and by slowly breaking down the German's game. (Amazingly, Nadal said after his win he was unaware that Federer had lost. That is hard to believe, but he was thrilled for Robredo.)

Federer was in a hurry. He said he “self-destructed”, and added:

“I kind of feel like I beat myself, you know, without taking any credit away from Tommy.”

Which, of course, did take credit away from Tommy, who deserved the win because of his patience in the shot and a clear-headed commitment to frustrate Federer by not taking unnecessary risks, the mirror opposite of his opponent.

What about that match with Rafa: was that on his mind? “Yeah, I mean, it would have been a quarters,” he said, “not a final. Not that much of a disappointment at the end of the day.”

Really? Of the many statistics that descended upon his stooped shoulders, two stood out. After making Slam quarters 36 times in a row, the man with 17 Majors to his name has failed to get that far twice in a row. As for Slam finals, for the first time in 10 years, he has not made one of those in any of the four Majors in 2013. He was always there. He has been part of our tennis lives. Now, at two Majors in a row, he has lost to players who previously would have been delighted just to share a court with him: Sergiy Stakhovsky and Tommy Robredo.

It cannot have been easy for Federer because these post-defeat inquisitions are becoming too common. Wearing a monogrammed cap to shield the harshness of the press room lights — and perhaps the glare of doubt aimed at him — he struggled at times to keep his cool. Usually a model of politeness, he strayed into sarcasm. When asked why, as a usually ruthless closer, he had converted only two of 16 break points, he said, “Yeah, that was a great close.” Pressed to explain this deficit in his performance, he said, “I think I explained enough, you know?”

It was not exactly an Andy Roddick cold blast, but it did betray his frustration and impatience. He knows he is running out of time. He does not want to dwell on defeats, because they undermine his self-belief — and without that, he is reduced to the ranks.

“I've definitely got to go back to work and come back stronger, you know, get rid of this loss now as quick as I can, forget about it, because that's not how I want to play from here on. I want to play better. I know I can. I showed it the last few weeks, that there is that level.”

Indeed he did. For a set against Nadal in Cincinnati two weeks ago he played the sort of tennis that can only be described as irresistible. But he lost. Nadal resisted. Defeat eats at Federer's soul because he plays like nobody else: he trusts his talent, no matter what the circumstances. It is what makes him great. Now that talent keeps letting him down, and Federer is starting to wonder if he can trust it for much longer.

If there is one thing that Novak Djokovic learned well once he returned to earth after that 43-match winning streak in 2011 it was to treat those impostors, triumph and disaster, just as Kipling suggested we all should. Perhaps he picked up the habit from Rafael Nadal, whom he beat six times that year. Andy Murray, once he'd satisfied his own inner misgivings that he belongs in the best company, has also banished those debilitating post-loss blues.

It seems to be a tougher ask for Federer. Defeat now means more than it did a few years ago. Each setback is much closer to the end of his career than it is to the days of his dominance. In those years, he could afford the odd loss, because there were so many wins to drown them out.

Federer is still hungry, but for what? How does he measure success now: is it reaching a final of a Slam? Is it going to the next Olympics? Is it beating one of his old rivals, just one more time... or is it surviving against players such as Robredo, Stakhovsky, Daniel Brands and Federico Delbonis?

Two of those were outside the top 100, one outside the top 50. Curiously, because of Juan Martin del Potro's exit here, Federer moves up to six from seven. It's a crumb, but maybe it will give him sustenance. Nobody wants to see him leave a tournament like that. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013

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