Federer’s unexpected early exit provides sense of symmetry

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Roger Federer’s shock defeat at Wimbledon in the second round could mark the end of an era some 12 years after he first lit up the Centre Court. John Roberts reports.

THE last time a defending seven-time champion was defeated on Wimbledon’s Centre Court it marked the beginning of Roger Federer’s rise to the top of tennis.

Now some 12 years on the same outcome could mark the beginning of the end for a player who may go down as the greatest the game has seen.

When such a result last happened the seven-time champion was Pete Sampras – a man who had seemed invincible on the grass of SW19. His fourth-round opponent that day in 2001 was a teenage Federer playing on Centre Court for the first time.

The Swiss held his nerve to win in five sets in a result which shocked the world of tennis and signalled the arrival of a new star.

Yet nobody watching could have predicted the career Federer was about to carve out for himself. As the 19-year-old took the first set commentators questioned whether he could go the distance against the great Sampras who was going for his fifth consecutive title and his eighth overall.

Peter Fleming remarked: “Sampras will be thinking, ‘I know I can keep this going for five sets, let’s see if the other guy can’.”

As it turned out the “other guy” would go the distance in that match and in more grand slam tournaments than any other man in the history of the sport.

But if defeating the seven-time champion in 2001 announced that Federer was meant for the big stage, losing as the seven-time champion this week – to world No 116 Sergiy Stakhovsky – and the manner of the defeat may signal that his time at the top is nearly up.

While Federer has been written off incorrectly in the past and has the stated aim of playing until the Rio Olympics in 2016, the dying embers of his recent defeat felt like the end of an era.

If this is the case it is worth reflecting on what an era it has been.

As a sports fan growing up at the end of the 20th century it seemed that whenever I witnessed what I thought was a great moment there was someone around to tell me that it was nothing compared to what had gone before – in all the sports I followed.

No World Cup could match England winning in 1966 or the amazing Brazil side of 1970. No boxing bout could ever compare to Ali v Frasier, and tennis was no exception. At every Wimbledon final, older relatives would tell me the golden age of tennis had been and gone.

This final was nothing compared to the battles of Borg v McEnroe and it was a shame that I had not been alive to see the great Rod Laver or Ken Rosewall play.

It was not just that the players of the past had been better but the sport had been better. Improved racket technology meant that tennis was now an all-power game dominated by big servers at Wimbledon and fast hard courts, and by baseline grinders elsewhere.

Players were wielding rackets with bigger sweet spots than the wooden ones used by their predecessors. This made it easier to strike the ball with power and spin and it seemed the result of this was there was no longer room in the modern game for skill and touch. Though these criticisms annoyed me I had a niggling suspicion that they were right.

And then I watched Roger Federer.

In the debates over who is the greatest tennis player of all time people often turn to the numbers to look for evidence and Federer’s list of records is as impressive as they come. More than 300 weeks at world No 1, including 237 consecutive weeks between 2004 and 2008. A total of 17 grand slam wins – smashing Sampras’s record of 14 which many thought would not be broken. And perhaps most impressive of all, reaching 18 out of 19 slam finals from 2005 to 2010.

But for me what makes Federer stand out from other sporting greats is that his game was not dependent on being the more powerful athlete, but on being the most skilful.

His tennis is some of the most stylish the sport has seen.

When we won his first Wimbledon in 2003 he was hailed as a throw back from another time. The modern game was no longer just about power but about finesse.

His five consecutive Wimbledon triumphs equalled the great Bjorn Borg and the two five-set finals in 2007 and 2008 won and lost against Rafael Nadal were among the most brilliant sporting theatre I had ever seen.

Federer’s dominance of the sport was followed by his epic rivalry with Nadal and now the emergence of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray as huge stars at the top of the game.

If his days at the very top are over then it should be remembered just how great they have been.

And in decades to come should my children or grandchildren ever be enjoying a Wimbledon final I will tell them that this is nothing.

The golden age of men’s tennis has been and gone and I was alive to watch the great Roger Federer play.