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What was it that caused Roger Federer to exit this year's Wimbledon in such feckless fashion?
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It's the end of the Federer-Nadal era
Rafa's refusal to fight against Darcis and Roger's inability to raise his game against Stakhovsky suggest so.
If the 2008 Wimbledon men's singles final were a book, it would be a classic. A timeless romance of artist and athlete, of contrasting play and personalities, of grass court range and clay court resilience, of a king and a warrior prince.
Federer, 27, had beaten Nadal, 23, in the two previous Wimbledon finals. Federer had lost the first two sets, but had eked out two tiebreakers, forcing the decisive fifth set. After three rain delays and four hours and 48 minutes - Wimbledon's longest final on record, going back to 1877 - Nadal won 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7 as the curtain of darkness dropped around the lawns of the All England Club.
Five times Wimbledon champion Bjorn Borg, who watched the final from the royal box, said: "You cannot see a better tennis match."
Seven-time winner at SW19 Pete Sampras, who watched that riveting clash on television in the United States, said: "The match transcended the sport."
It was a match scripted by the gods. Much like the rivalry itself. All great stories have endings and this one must too. As the younger man repeatedly reports struggles of a creaky knee, the older one, the painter-player, is beginning to fade against the assault of time. Has the curtain dropped on the Rafa-Roger era?
The stats on the rivalry are a tall order, compelling as it is staggering. Federer and Nadal have stood across the net from each other 30 times. The Spaniard leads the head-to-head 20-10. They met for the first time nine years ago in the round of 32 of the Miami Masters. The following year, in 2005, they played each other in the final of the same event, a match Federer won in five sets.
They've played each other 15 times on clay with Nadal leading the head-to-head 13-2; Federer leads their grasscourt meetings (all in Wimbledon finals) 2-1 and they're evened out at 6 matches a piece on hard courts. 20 of the 30 encounters have been in the title round and eight of those in Grand Slam finals which the Spaniard leads 6-2.
Interestingly, it is the grass court meetings that best sum up the rivalry. The Swiss genius never did mount much of a challenge to Rafa on clay, but it is a tribute to his spirit, not something Federer was hugely applauded for, that saw him repeatedly throw himself into the clay court cauldron that the Spaniard ruled with rare authority. Federer wasn't the most successful player on clay, but he kept chipping at the block.
Conversely, it was Rafa's indomitable spirit, a quality that led Sampras to bill him as the 'mental animal', that pushed him to charge Federer's grass court citadel armed with boldness and belief.
Federer versus Nadal on grass was the ultimate tussle of supreme skill and the indomitable spirit. It was tennis' ultramarathon. Nadal's performance at Wimbledon this year where he lost to Steve Darcis, a player ranked 130 places below him in the rankings, and his own admission that grass was now the 'toughest surface' for him to play on, given how low one has to get down to meet the ball, shows the change in attitude.
Whatever the reality of the situation, Nadal's uncle and coach Toni criticised the Spaniard's attitude after the loss last week, and it is clear that the condition of his knee has got to Nadal. For some part of his first round clash it appeared he wasn't even trying. He had pulled out of Halle and arrived at SW19 with no match preparation.
At the start of the year, when he didn't show up in Doha for the season-opener, blaming it on a stomach bug, the talk in Spanish media circles was that Rafa didn't want to push himself on hard courts because of the condition of his knees that had seen him sit out of the Tour for seven months (July 2012 to February 2013). Though he did play in Indian Wells on his return, winning a title there, he clearly isn't willing to stretch himself. On surfaces other than clay, he'll go only that much and no further.
Federer, who won Wimbledon last year, increasing the number of Grand Slam titles he has won to a record 17, will be 32 by the time the US Open begins. If indeed it is their grass court tangos that define this rivalry, then their early exits at Wimbledon also have a tale to tell.
With Rafa against Darcis, the effort, whatever the reason maybe, wasn't there, but Federer wanted desperately to come through against Stakhovsky. It was his court, his venue. He tried every trick he could think of, including intimidation, driving straight at Stakhovsky and refusing to apologise, but nothing worked. He simply didn't have the reserves to turn it around. That, as Federer understood that glorious evening at Wimbledon, is what age does to the individual.
To be sure they'll play each other again. Very unlikely that it'll be at the venue that defined their rivalry, given the state of Rafa's knees. Maybe they'll meet in the quarterfinals of Miami or Melbourne and trouble the statistician a bit, but as far as the domination of their rivalry goes, it is over. An era has passed.
It was perhaps with that sense of foreboding that fans awaited the Rafa-Roger quarterfinals at Wimbledon this year. One last dance.
On the eve of the tournament, Nadal announced: "If I get as far as the quarterfinals I'll definitely be competing. After that anything can happen, you can win or you can lose. " That was as good a warning as the Spaniard was likely to sound.
Federer cautioned the media and fans saying both players had several rounds to win before the quarterfinal. It's possible that Federer and Nadal will climb back into the top four of the rankings, whereby they can avoid playing each other until the semifinals or final. But as Federer pointed out, the trouble is in getting that far in a draw littered with players like Juan Martin Del Potro (6ft 6) and Jerzy Janowicz (6 ft 8) blessed with a blistering serve and a powerful backcourt game. It's an obstacle race which can be a daunting exercise. Two years ago, they may have been up for it, matching each other stride for stride on the homestretch, but that time has passed.
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