When Darkness Covered The Land

It was, as a matter of fact, a dark day on Monday in New York. No, really — there were just a few tiny and brief sunbreaks, with dark gray clouds dominating the skies and oppressive, heavy conditions persisting.

Sure, Tommy Robredo’s yellow shirt represented the sunshine he in fact turned out to bring to the day. His exuberance, rightly earned in a moment of profound professional achievement, is something that should cheer the heart of the impartial sports fan. What Robredo has done in this autumnal stage of his career is nothing short of remarkable. Who could have possibly imagined that Robredo would be playing in the quarterfinals of a hardcourt major… and after attaining his first career win over an opponent who had regularly vexed him in the past?

Heck, who could have expected so many of the 2002-style events that have occurred so far at this “2002 United States Open”?

Lleyton Hewitt making the second week.

Daniela Hantuchova making the quarters.

Richard Gasquet not sucking (okay, okay, that’s a 2007-style event, but it feels as though he’s been disappointing tennis fans since 2002).

Sports are amazing, even when they hurt. Life is so much richer and more fascinating for their presence in my life and yours. Last night at the U.S. Open provided the best of sport — not just Robredo’s sweet taste of sunshine, but Rafael Nadal’s excellence in a magnificent match against the best version of Philipp Kohlschreiber seen since the 2009 Roland Garros tournament, when he dismissed a fellow named Djokovic in the third round. The night’s concluding match, the Bryan Brothers’ win over Colin Fleming and Jonny Marray, was the best men’s doubles match I can recall seeing since the McEnroe and (Peter, not Colin…) Fleming days.

Sport is grand, and we’re getting some Grand Slam moments in New York.

But about that darkness covering the land…

Remember when Roger Federer lost to Sergiy Stakhovsky at Wimbledon? The hysteria following that loss was so uncalled for and so misplaced for one simple reason: Stakhovsky played out of his ever-loving mind. Remember that time when, late in the second set and already down a set, Stakhovsky arrived at 15-40 after the first authortitative returns of serve from Federer all afternoon? Stakhovsky threw down two monster serves that Federer really couldn’t do anything about. It was that kind of day. Federer’s opponent had all the answers. Break points weren’t squandered by the Swiss; they were snatched away by an airtight foe who soared from start to finish and never really cracked at all. Sometimes, an opponent is just that good. Stakhovsky closed the door with a clutch fourth-set tiebreaker… you know, the kind that Federer has produced hundreds of times in his career.

This match against Tommy Robredo was not that match against Stakhovsky. This was a match in which Federer gained break-point opening after break-point opening, and then put himself in a winning position on most (not all, but most) of those points… only to gack the point away with a routine error we’d associate with Gasquet in the fourth round of a major (which he had surmounted only once in human history before beating Bill Clinton yesterday), or Grega Zemlja on any day of the week.

Federer’s mind was the picture of pure panic on big points. Health didn’t seem to be an issue — again, he put himself in winning positions many times. Effort was certainly not an issue. You earn 16 break points in a match with effort. The brain and the body just failed, and so, for the second straight major, the quarterfinals — once the surest thing in sports — will be filled by eight men other than Federer.

And so, we’re brought to this: So many times, so very many times, a Federer loss has brought forth the most ridiculous, stormy, excessive flurry of “The Sky Is Falling” sentiments from fans (both Fed fans and non-fans) and the pundit class. Those sentiments, on all those prior occasions, were marked by the panic of a fan base and the glee-cum-severity of outside groups wanting Federer to leave the stage or (in the case of the pundits) wanting to be first with the “HOT SPORTS TAKE” that Federer is finally done.

Now, though, by any reasonable measurement, we have arrived at a moment in time when it is not only reasonable, but profoundly and substantially logical, to question if Roger Federer will ever be “Roger Federer” again.

Could this really be true. It might.

Then again, it might not. Federer’s been known to rise from the depths of disappointment and failure before. If he did so again, it wouldn’t surprise his fans in that larger sense.

However, you know it and I know it: It is now truly fair, after a rubbish performance, to question if the man can make this big climb up the mountain with Nadal in full flight, his ranking outside the top four (making late stages of majors that much more difficult; of course, the problem now is that he’s not even reaching those late stages…), and his mind-body dualism brought to new levels of frailty.

We’re either going to see Federer rebound… or we’re going to see him recede into the realm of the ordinary, and that word — ordinary — is the last word I have ever associated with one Roger Federer, the most extraordinary athlete I have ever seen and loved in nearly 38 years of life.

Though the sadness of a nearer-than-I’d-like-to-imagine endgame for my favorite athlete of all time is real, it will be fascinating to see the old man (in tennis terms) make the attempt to make that steep climb of tennis’ Swiss Alps.

Right now is not a good time for climbing, though. It’s too dark.


About Matt Zemek

Sportswriter, political writer, tennis commentator... and more.

2 responses to “When Darkness Covered The Land”

  1. Deborah Taylor (@shackle52) says :

    Matt, thanks for this. After Fed got broken in the first game, I found myself predicting every bad thing in this match: losing the tiebreak after struggling to get back on serve, getting broken himself after failing to convert break points in a previous game and on and on. Not going to predict what comes next except Tommy Robredo will not put up that kind of fight against Nadal. I just hope Roger takes his own advice post USO 11 and not get too down on himself.

  2. BS says :

    Written so eloquently, Matt. That piece captured everything surrounding the loss perfectly. It’s so hard to know what’s going to happen now for Federer. As you said, time and time again he has fought back from the adversity facing him, but we can’t know if he’s going to do it again. I know I’m certainly not ready for the alternative- the continual decline of the Federer game, but at the same time I know that it will come eventually. I just hope that when the time does come for him to leave the sport, that he goes out on a high, because anything else wouldn’t be fitting for one of the greatest athletes in history.

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