By Howard Fendrich
NEW YORK: Right from the start, Roger Federer looked very little like, well, Roger Federer.
In the opening game of his fourth-round match at the U.S. Open, the owner of 17 Grand Slam titles got passed at the net twice, sailed a backhand long, then missed two forehands to get broken. In the second game, the man who has spent more weeks ranked No. 1 than anyone else dumped a backhand into the net, then shanked two other backhands several feet wide.
No longer the dominant presence he once was, Federer lost in the round of 16 at Flushing Meadows for the first time in a decade, surprisingly beaten 7-6 (3), 6-3, 6-4 by 19th-seeded Tommy Robredo of Spain on Monday night.
“I kind of self-destructed, which is very disappointing,” said Federer, who made 43 unforced errors and managed to convert only 2 of 16 break points. “It was a frustrating performance.”
Only the latest in a series. This caps a poor-by-his-standards Grand Slam season for Federer, whose record Grand Slam trophy collection includes five at the U.S. Open.
He exited in the semifinals at the Australian Open in January, the quarterfinals at the French Open in early June, and the second round of Wimbledon — against a player ranked 116th, to boot — in late June. That ended Federer’s record run of reaching at least the quarterfinals at 36 consecutive Grand Slam tournaments.
Now, thanks to Robredo, Federer has a new, unwanted streak: Two consecutive losses before the quarterfinals at majors.
This is the first season since 2002 that Federer did not reach at least one final at any of the four Grand Slam tournaments. That year also marked the last time Federer was ranked lower than he is now at No. 7.
“The story of my life: When I lose, people are shell-shocked to see me play this way,” Federer said.
At age 32, Federer has struggled with a bad back and experimented with a larger racket head, and all along, he’s had far more trouble winning matches than he usually does — particularly against the sort of players he barely broke a sweat against at his peak.
That this defeat came against Robredo made it all the more stunning. Not that Robredo is a slouch. He’s been ranked as high as No. 5, albeit back in 2006, and this is his seventh trip to the quarterfinals at a major. He made it that far at this year’s French Open by doing something no man had done since 1927, winning three matches in a row after dropping the first two sets of each.
But consider these other facts about Robredo and this matchup: Not only was he 0-10 against Federer until Monday, he’d managed to win only three of the 27 previous sets they’d played. And before Monday, Robredo’s record in the fourth round of the U.S. Open was 0-7.
Heading into Monday, the buzz at the U.S. Open was all about looking ahead to a potential quarterfinal between Federer and his nemesis, Rafael Nadal. Owners of a combined 29 Grand Slam trophies, they have played each other 31 times — including in eight major finals — but never in New York.
Federer’s loss means they won’t fix that gap in their rivalry this week. When Federer’s match was ending, the second-seeded Nadal was just getting going against No. 22 Philipp Kohlschreiber in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Federer originally was supposed to face Robredo on that main, 23,000-capacity court, but hours of heavy rain in the afternoon muddled the schedule, including prompting the tournament to postpone two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka’s match against 2008 French Open champion Ana Ivanovic until Tuesday.
In the three women’s matches that were played Monday, No. 10 Roberta Vinci and unseeded Flavia Pennetta set up an all-Italian quarterfinal with victories. Vinci beat yet another woman from Italy, 136th-ranked qualifier Camila Giorgi, 6-4, 6-2, while Pennetta defeated No. 21 Simona Halep of Romania 6-2, 7-6 (3).
Azarenka or Ivanovic will wind up facing Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia, who got past American wild-card entry Alison Riske, a 23-year-old who grew up in Pittsburgh, 6-3, 5-7, 6-2.
In other men’s action, No. 4 David Ferrer, runner-up to Nadal at the French Open this year, edged No. 18 Janko Tipsarevic 7-6 (2), 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (3).