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Kurt Streeter

He's just not the same old Roger Federer

September 05, 2008|Kurt Streeter

NEW YORK -- Something is wrong. Something is missing. The road is bumpy. The clutch is sticky. The searing hot dominance isn't quite as torrid as it used to be.

The record will show that Thursday afternoon Roger Federer won a tennis match at the U.S. Open. His 7-6, 6-4, 7-6 victory over hard-serving journeyman Gilles Muller propelled the Swiss star to the semifinals of a Grand Slam for the 18th straight time.

However, what the record will not show is how Federer went about his work: scrappy instead of stifling, seat-of-the-pants instead of the cold, firm and resolved, as he has been in the past.

Thursday's unexpectedly close match -- taken together with the Swiss star's painful year and the pulse-rattling escape he managed in a five-set marathon Tuesday night -- make it evident as ever that the Roger Federer we're seeing now just doesn't look or play like . . . well, like Roger Federer.

Granted, this is quibbling. Anyone on the men's tennis tour who does not have the surname Djokovic or Nadal lusts after the year Federer has had: semifinal at the Australian Open, final at the French and Wimbledon, at least a semifinal in New York. That's dominating stuff. But Federer dominating?

Not on your life.

We're used to seeing him come to Flushing Meadows gunning for his third Grand Slam title in 10 months. We're certainly not used to seeing him struggle against guys such as Muller, who began this tournament ranked No. 130. Muller, a qualifier, rode a hot streak to this match. But it used to be that Federer would wrap his large hands around the neck of No. 130, squeeze with all his might, and not let go.

"It was tough today, especially to break [serve] against the wind," Federer said afterward.

"It was almost impossible you know. . . . He's a big guy, he gets great angles. [He has] great variety."

A big serve? The wind? Angles from No. 130? Used to be these things meant nothing to Roger Federer.

This match could well have gone the other way. The first- and third-set tiebreakers were dangling, nervy, tightrope walks.

Muller at every turn pressed the action. Federer backpedaled and had to dig deep into the corners and looked awkward. Sometimes, of course, there was brilliance, but not once did he look fully in control.

Afterward, Muller was asked how it was he had the temerity to walk on to the court and think he could win this match.

In so many words, he said he'd drawn confidence this year from seeing Federer finally struggle.

"Before . . . I think a lot of players have too much respect for him," said the 25-year-old, who hails from tiny Luxembourg. "I mean, he's nice person outside of the court and he's a good player. . . .

"But on court, nobody should have respect for him. You just go out there to win no matter who is on the other side of the court."

Remember, this was Gilles Muller speaking. Two years ago, would someone of his lineage even dare say something such as this about Roger Federer?

What, exactly, has changed?

Federer said Thursday he's moving as well as ever, but it looks to me as if he's a quarter-step slow. Balls he used to find time to set his feet for are now balls that have him two inches off kilter. In tennis, two inches is a chasm. Fall in and you are done.

More than that, to me at least, Federer just looks tired, which is quite possibly the reason we're seeing more emotion than ever from him this week: He knows he must do more to pump himself up.

Then there's self-belief. In ways we have not see in years, he sputters when he used to spurt, gums-up when he used to flow. Games he once reeled off in two minutes now last 10. Balls that once regularly fired off his racket for laser winners now dribble into the net. This happens when confidence slips.

What's the culprit? No one is sure, probably not even him.

Is it the mono? Is it age? (Pro tennis years are like dog years, so the saying goes. If this is true then Federer, a pro since 1998, is now a crusty geriatric, searching for his wooden cane.)

Is he struggling against a year he made unnecessarily long by playing exhibitions with Sampras, chasing a buck he did not need? Is it the cover shoots for Men's Vogue and the hangers on? Might be all of this, taken together. Or maybe it's simply that Rafael Nadal now frolics inside Federer's once clear head.

Earlier at this tournament, Federer said that at Flushing Meadows, his old invincibility could come back, with one winning run. Two matches remain. He's awfully close. He can certainly do it. But right now, that winning run looks as if it will come on a road that is awfully hard and bumpy.

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kurt.streeter@latimes.com

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