How the King was Felled

A fan’s analysis of Federer’s second-round Wimbledon ouster

In the end, the score simply read: 6-7 (5), 7-6 (5), 7-5, 7-6 (5) and what it translated into was that Roger Federer’s uncanny streak of 36 consecutive Slam Quarter-finals had just been brought to a screeching  halt and his – along with legions of his fans’ – hopes of an 8th victory at Wimbledon had been rudely defenestrated.  It was the third day at the hallowed championships – which many are now referring to as #BlackWednesday, owing to the number of seeds it felled, some quite literally- and the 116th-ranked Sergiy Stakhovsky of Ukraine had just hustled the 7-time Champion out of the court.

Fans were aghast, fans were outraged and some fans were plain disbelieving – hoping even in the closing stages of the tie-break in the 4th set that Federer might still be able to pull a rabbit out of his fabled hat and turn things around. But that wasn’t to be, and once the anguish had cleared a lot of those fans (myself included) were left wondering, ‘’what the hell just happened, and how?’’

Was it that the earlier, no less surprising ouster of Rafa Nadal at the hands of the equally little-known Darcis had left all the qualifiers more confident of their ability and the top seeds uncertain of their invincibility in these preliminary rounds, left them a tad mentally deficit or unsure coming into the matches? I don’t think so, most definitely not in Roger’s case. As a long-time die-hard fan of the man, I personally believe that the only people that may have made a pernicious, unwanted home in Roger’s psyche are Nadal himself and more recently, perhaps Djokovic. Nobody else has ever made the man question his abilities, especially before he even made it to court. And on grass, possibly not even those two. So no, it definitely wasn’t that.

Was it then the other problem that has plagued both Federer’s game and his countless true fans over the last few years – the ‘walkabout’ that his game suddenly seems to go to in the middle of some games? When shots that were hitting the mark suddenly go all over the place, he can’t seem to buy a first-serve and unforced errors creep in out of nowhere, leaving us wondering if vital parts of his game have suddenly decided to go AWOL? Let’s face it, fellow Federer fans, this has happened – and frustrated the crap out of us – quite often in the recent past. But, again, I don’t think that was the case in this match. He started in his usual sublime fashion and though towards the end, those unforced errors did start appearing, I believe they were induced; brought about by desperation, the desperation to try and play shots way out of his comfort zone and somehow squeeze them past the monster reach of Stakhovsky at the net. And yes, they were some shots of frustration too – an emotion we rarely equate with Roger on court – and they were largely because he realized he was swiftly running out of options, even with the full range of his game at his disposal.

What was it then?

Certainly Stakhovsky’s well-nigh unplayable serves played a big part of it, not just how good they were but also how consistently they were delivered- keeping his first-serve percentage hovering between 70 and 60 almost throughout the match, bailing him out with little fuss each time he needed bailing. That serve was nothing short of a stunning revelation, to Federer, the fans and the commentators alike.

But, Federer has in the past found a way to deal with the Karlovics, Isners, Roddicks and the like; all with more than formidable service games of their own. And perhaps he could have done the same this time around too. But he wasn’t allowed to. Because Stakhovsky came onto court with a dinosaur up his sleeve, a relic of the eighties. In the end, and in my opinion, what totally derailed Federer’s game was the no longer in favour Serve and Volley tactics of old that Stakhovsky employed, time and again, from start to end.

Federer’s game has always been about finding those improbable angles, making impossible corners and kissing the lines with seemingly effortless ease, keeping his opponents stranded at the back of the court and then dispatching an unplayable forehand or a well-disguised delicate drop-shot; his has always been a game of finesse and superlative placement. But that was not to be today.

When Stakhovsky came to the net shot after shot after shot, he forced Federer to do so too, and in effect, turned it into a brutal boxing match. They were literally trading punches at the net, trying to find ways to drill holes into the opponents reach and squeeze the ball through them, or rely on an uncontrolled lob. He hurried and hustled the finesse out of Federer’s game, and that to me was where the game was lost. Federer found he didn’t have an effective answer to this up-close and personal battering match that Stakhovsky had turned this game into, and the latter, proved far too effective and unrelenting at it. In the end, Federer took one punch too many.

I’m sure there are other more technically sound viewers of the game who will analyze it far better than I did and have more compelling theories, but as a non-playing, non-technically sound long-time fan of both the game and Federer, that’s how the game was won and lost in my eyes. My very damp eyes, by the end of it.

Now I only hope that having done the unthinkable and broken so many hearts in the process, Stakhovsky at least goes on to punch holes into the games of some other favorites as well. That might make me feel a little better, not much, but just a little.

 

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