NEW YORK – Roger Federer was disheveled, overheated and a little disgruntled Monday night.
And after the Aussie John Millman played the match of his life, in the match of his career, the former champion is out of the US Open in the fourth round.
Tennis fans who who woke up this morning and saw the 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (3) scoreline robably were shocked. If Federer was going to lose in Flushing Meadows, it was surely going to be to Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals, right?
But if they watched any of the match, in which Federer produced a jaw-dropping 76 unforced errors, they wouldn’t be.
Federer said he wasn’t injured. And he didn’t appear to be. He was done in by a factor beyond his control that had affected him very few times in his career: the heat and humidity.
“Was just one of those nights where I guess I felt I couldn’t get air. There was no circulation at all. I don’t know, for some reason I just struggled in the conditions tonight. It’s one of the first times it’s happened to me,” Federer said. “Yeah, it’s uncomfortable. Clearly just keep on sweating more and more and more and more as the match goes on. You lose energy as it goes by.”
Millman, who hails from steamy, humid Brisbane, also was sweating. His black kit was so wet, it was shiny. But after a so-so start where he later said he felt “like a deer in the deadlights”, it rarely showed as he executed a precise, workmanlike game that relies on consistency and dazzling footwork on the baseline.
This was his opportunity. And at age 29, and after all those years spent in tennis’s minor leagues and rehabbing injuries and trying to catch a break, he wasn’t going to let it pass him by.
Should have been up two sets to none
Nevertheless, Federer was up a set and served for the second set.
But earlier on in that set, a 14 1/2-minute game in which he missed 18-of-22 first serves (stubbornly continuing to serve to the same spots, unsuccessfully) and saved seven break points was definitely a warning sign.
Federer was up 40-15 on his normally imperturbable serve twice in that set, only to cough it up. He was sweating cupfuls, his hair flopping limply over his Uniqlo headband in a way it rarely does. After the first two sets, his first-serve percentage stood at 36 per cent. Even by the end he never broke 50 per cent, for only the second time ever at the US Open.
“When you feel like that, everything is off … Look, I’ve trained in tougher conditions. I’ve played in the daytime, you know, at 120 (degrees). Some days it’s just not the day where the body can cope with it. I do believe since the roof is on that there is no air circulation in the stadium. I think just that makes it a totally different US Open,” he said. “Plus conditions maybe were playing slower this year on top of it. You have soaking wet pants, soaking wet everything. The balls are in there, too. You try to play. Everything gets slower as you try to hit winners.
“I wish I could have led two sets to love and then maybe the match would be different, you know, and I would find a way, because I did have my chances all the way till the end. It was just tough. I thought John played a great match in difficult conditions,” he added.
Playing your hero, without intimidation
Millman said that he’s not generally a heavy sweater. But he, too, was soaked. Between sets, the ball kids would have to wipe off both baselines after all the dripping.
Federer had a nice smile for Millman at the net. The Aussie was one of the rare veteran players Federer has invited to train with him during tournament prep weeks. And Millman went to Switzerland after losing early at the French Open.
Perhaps that rare opportunity to get to know the man behind the legend worked in the Aussie’s favor a little bit.
“I look up to him. I really like his team. He’s always been, you know, one of the guys in the locker rooms, we’ll always chat, very approachable. He’s a hero of mine,” he said. “I felt a little bit guilty today because he didn’t have his best day, and that’s for sure. I know that. I’m very aware he didn’t have a great day in the office. Probably to beat him I needed him to have an off day and I needed to have a decent, good day.”
Federer wasn’t the only one to struggle in the heat and humidity Monday, despite the fact that he and Millman played later than anyone else. Djokovic struggled as well. But the Serb got through in straight sets against Joao Sousa.
The sun was long gone by the time Federer and Millman took the court, but it remained stifling. And on this night, Federer’s 37-year-old body couldn’t get on top of it.
Inexplicable errors by Federer
From 1-0 in the fourth-set tiebreak, Federer made six straight errors. That included back-to-back double-faults on his serve, at 1-2.
Millman’s match was inspired and clean – 47 winners, 28 unforced errors. Federer’s was a mess, in large part because he went for broke on such a high percentage of the points, trying to end them quickly. The serve-volleying on second serve was a throwback to the 1990s. He pulled out the drop shot more than was prudent in a month’s worth of tough matches, because he lost faith in his groundstrokes so early on.
Federer had 65 winners … and 76 unforced errors. He had 13 aces – but 10 doubles faults (his second-highest total ever in New York). There were some routine volleys on key moments that a more energetic Federer would have crushed by just taking a step or two forward. He couldn’t will his body to take those steps. And he missed alarmingly.
It has been 10 years since Federer won the US Open. And the logistics were definitely not on his side to break that drought this year, with the visibly slowed-down courts. (Why on earth did they do this, anyway, when it’s always hot and humid here and tough enough on the players?).
No Federer vs. Djokovic
Add in the weather, and a bad day at the office, and an inspired opponent seizing the day. That means that the quarterfinal match between Federer and Djokovic, pointed to since the draw came out 10 days ago, will not happen.
Tickets in the upper tier of Arthur Ashe Stadium Wednesday night, which had been going for $250 on the resale market, had dropped down to $100 by Tuesday morning.
Millman, who was ranked No. 235 a year ago and will be in the top 40 regardless of his result against Djokovic Wednesday, was stoic throughout. When Federer’s last forehand sailed long, he had almost no reaction. He had too much respect for his opponent and assessed the situation with a clear eye. And he’s been through too much to leap up and down as though he’d just won the whole thing.
He took off his sweaty, drippy cap and walked to the net to shake hands. Only for the supporters in his player’s box did Millman have a lopsided smile and a thumb’s up. But only for a moment.
“A couple of shoulder surgeries, a groin surgery. Not so easy. With that you have to start all over again. That’s challenging. It’s challenging financially. It’s challenging physically. And it’s challenging mentally,” he said.
“But, you know, you do it. And you do all those moments in rehab, you do all that for something like this. It all becomes a little bit more rewarding. I’m just incredibly lucky that I’ve had a great group of people, not just in tennis, but friends and family back home who have helped me stay positive and stay upbeat because there were plenty of moments where I was pretty negative and down on myself.”
At 37, not many major chances remaining
For Federer, the season has been a struggle on a few levels since his impressive run at the Australian Open. Perhaps it all went a bit south when, feeling good physically, he added the 500-level Rotterdam tournament to his schedule and took back the No. 1 ranking back in February.
The 37-year-old has put a lot of wins up this season. But he’s had some very disappointing losses, some that his younger self would have mercilessly put away in straight sets, but that ended up being disappointments.
This latest setback, at the Grand Slam he was on some levels pacing himself to do well at through the summer, will be extremely disappointing Had he lost to Djokovic, as he did in the Cincinnati final a few weeks ago, the medicine might not have tasted quite as bitter.
But in 40 previous matches against players ranked out of the top 50 at the US Open, Federer had never lost. Until Monday night.
As he gets towards the end of his career, there are a few too many “firsts” like this. Perhaps there are more to come. But this is how a career winds down – Father Time sort of chips away at it, even as Federer has cheated the old goat for the last few years.
But losing to John Millman in the fourth round of a major? That one is going to sting.