NEW YORK -- The setting was strange. The result wasn’t all-too shocking. The dream quarterfinal is gone, and so is the great Roger Federer.
Federer, the 17-time major champion, was sent packing in the fourth round of the U.S. Open by Spanish veteran Tommy Robredo 7-6 (3), 6-3, 6-4 on Monday night.
“I kind of self-destructed,” Federer said, rattling off short, powerful sentences under a blue RF hat in his post-match press conference. “I missed so many opportunities. Rhythm was off.”
The aging, slumping Federer, 32, entered the year’s final Grand Slam event ranked a crooked seventh, his lowest seed here since 2002.
He exited it just as unusually, on a court he hadn’t played on in seven years, looking very, very unlike the Swiss Maestro.
He flailed. He erred. He sweat, profusely.
“I struggled throughout,” he said.
Federer capped a desultory summer where he lost in the second round of Wimbledon to No. 116 Sergiy Stakhovsky and then entered lower-level clay-court tournaments to experiment with a larger racket frame before bagging it.
“Confidence does all these things,” said Federer, who will actually rise in the rankings to No. 6 after the U.S. Open. “It takes care of all the things you don't usually think about, you know. But I just think it's been a difficult last three months. Maybe -- how do you say -- my consistency is just not quite there yet.”
Federer failed to reach a major final this year, the first time he’s done that since 2002. In 2012, a seventh Wimbledon title shushed talk of Federer’s decline, but there’s no doubt now that men’s tennis’ Big Four is no more.
In this year’s majors, Federer fell to Andy Murray in the Australian Open semifinals and exited in the French Open quarterfinals. His loss to Stakhovsky at Wimbledon was his earliest at a major in 10 years. His so-called rivals -- Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Murray -- won those three tournaments.
Credit Robredo, who continued a bounce-back season well documented in tennis circles. He also busted brackets, crushing what could have been the first meeting between Federer and Nadal at the U.S. Open in the quarterfinals.
At the end Monday night, Federer fought through the pain with a smile as he approached the net, wiped off his drenched headband and shook hands with Robredo, who is just one year younger and had been 0-10 against the Swiss great in his career.
Federer didn’t lose to a young up-and-comer. He was beaten by a man of his own generation, one he has owned for a decade.
He picked up his bags, walked off Louis Armstrong Stadium to applause and trudged outside through the humid darkness, chaperoned by officials, toward Arthur Ashe Stadium’s players locker room.
Of course, Federer said a potential quarterfinal with Nadal was not on his mind.
“Not that much of a disappointment at the end of the day,” he said. “If I'm playing like this, I'm not going to beat Rafa, or (Nadal’s Monday opponent Philipp) Kohlschreiber, for that matter.”
The popular parody Federer Twitter account goes under the handle “@PseudoFed.” The Federer that showed up for work on Labor Day looked like a fake, too.
He sprayed forehands and was given several opportunities by Robredo to dictate the match. He couldn’t. Federer, noticeably slower than the man who won five straight Opens up to 2008, converted just two of 16 break point chances.
“Wasn't a very good close today,” he said. “I want to play better. I know I can.”
We’ll see about that. Will Federer switch back to a larger racket? Will there be other changes, either in coaching or in scheduling? He’s left searching for answers going into the fall and the next season. There’s no questioning that Father Time is creeping in, though.
Robredo’s first comments on the court after the match were that he beat the greatest of all time.
“The story of my life,” Federer said, “when I lose, people are shell-shocked to see me play this way.”
A “shock” implies there was some sort of electricity in the air. Like on this day 22 years ago, when Jimmy Connors, on his 39th birthday, came from two sets down to beat Aaron Krickstein in the quarterfinals. The match is a CBS rain delay special, and the final-set tiebreak was aired again during a 4 1/2-hour suspension Monday that forced Federer’s match from Ashe to Armstrong.
There was no suspense, only resignation, after Robredo broke Federer midway through the third set. The Spaniard sat down, up 5-4, took a bite of a banana, got up and served out the match.
“Pretty simple,” Federer said of Robredo’s play. “No surprises.”