Reporting from Wimbledon, England — Roger Federer cocked an eyebrow once during the fourth set of his Wimbledon quarterfinal match against rosy-cheeked Tomas Berdych.
Berdych, a supremely talented 24-year-old from the Czech Republic, had just hit a looping forehand that was deceptively powerful. The ball landed deep in the corner of Centre Court, a smidgen past the tip of Federer's racket. The point gave the Czech player a service break in the fourth set and it proclaimed what was about to happen:
Federer will not be Wimbledon champion.
For the first time since 2002, he won't be in the final on Centre Court, or even the semifinal, after being beaten by the 12th-seeded Berdych, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4. And afterward, Federer seemed to be missing some of the grace he always exhibits in his game.
The 28-year-old top-seeded player from Switzerland made a point of mentioning back and thigh aches that he had not spoken of before in this tournament and also called himself "a little bit unlucky."
"I don't know if he was just looking for excuses," Berdych said. "I mean, [injuries] happen to all of us."
With Federer's exit, second-seeded and No. 1-ranked Rafael Nadal becomes the presumptive favorite. The Spaniard, who won here in 2008 but was unable to defend his title last year because of a knee injury, eliminated sixth-seeded Robin Soderling of Sweden, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-1 in a contentious match on Court 1 that had each player shaking fists at the other after hitting winners.
The favorite of the heart for most fans here will be fourth-seeded Andy Murray of Scotland. Murray earned thunderous cheers on Centre Court with a relentless pounding of 10th-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France, who ran out of energy while losing, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (5), 6-2, 6-2.
In Friday's semifinals, Nadal will play Murray and Berdych will face third-seeded Novak Djokovic, who had no trouble with unseeded Yen-Hsun Lu of Taiwan. Lu, who upset fifth-seeded Andy Roddick, offered little resistance in losing, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2.
But Federer's loss was unexpected, and questions about whether this decline is temporary or something more permanent — he turns 29 next month — will certainly pick up as the final major of the year, the U.S. Open, approaches.
"I couldn't play the way I wanted to play," Federer said. "I am struggling with a little bit of a back and a leg issue. That just doesn't quite allow me to play the way I would like to play. It's frustrating, to say the least."
Federer had been favored to tie the record of most Wimbledon singles titles won by a man — seven, accomplished by Pete Sampras and 19th-century player William Renshaw.
Instead, Federer's ranking will fall to No. 3 in the world on Monday (the lowest it's been since 2003), and he won't be winning what would have been his 17th Grand Slam title.
Federer also lost in the quarterfinals at the French Open — to Soderling. That had been the first time Federer hadn't made a major tournament semifinal in six years. But clay has not been Federer's signature surface; Wimbledon grass has.
Yet it was Berdych who played as if the surface was his favorite.
He was unintimidated by Federer's treacherous serve. Berdych is 6 feet 5 and moves well. His long strides ate up the grass along the baseline, and there were times when Federer looked surprised when Berdych would have a reply for a one-handed backhand or a serve that touched the edges of the service box.
Only once did Berdych seem afflicted by nerves. Fighting to hold serve in the fifth game of the final set, Berdych fell behind, 0-40, partly because of consecutive double faults.
He recovered by hitting a service winner, a forehand winner and a volley. After Federer earned a fourth break point in that game, Berdych let loose with an ace and a bellow. He went on to hold for 3-3 and then break Federer's serve with a forehand winner.
The defending champion seemed disheartened from that point, and his focus on his injuries seemed like sour grapes.
ESPN and NBC analyst Mary Carillo said, "I feel badly Berdych played the match of his life and had to defend his win. That's a pity."
Fellow analyst and former Wimbledon champion John McEnroe said that Federer might be facing the inevitable. "He's a human being and he may face the fact he may never win another thing," McEnroe said. "But I would say it's unfair to focus on that yet."