US OPEN: THE NIGHT THE TENNIS GOD FELL FROM THE HEAVENS

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Photo by EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images

Bill Simons

 New York

We know the mantras. “Shhh! genius at work.” Or if you prefer, “Federer-is-Better-er.”

The tennis superman can do little wrong.  His grace mesmerizes. Among his legions of fans, the only question is how great of a tennis god is this athletic deity?

But on this night the universe tilted, the middle didn’t hold, hopes melted in a blistering New York oven.

On this night the artist’s strokes were off, errant and uncertain.

On this stage the magician couldn’t pull out many rabbits. Houdini winced. The crowd suffered in desperate disbelief.

Immortals don’t reveal their mortality. Geniuses defy the ordinary. But on this night, the man who defies time seemed old. His wrinkles were deeper, his steps were slower. As Federer was going down to a shock 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (3) loss to John Millman loyalists looked for a feel-good reason to explain his fall.

Some blamed it on burgundy or Uniqlo. Roger hasn’t won any of his 20 Slams in dark red or with his new apparel brand.

Maybe, claimed some, like the rest of the tennis world, Roger was looking ahead to the supposed match of the tourney, his Wednesday night Battle of the Titans against Djokovic, who had just beaten him in Cincinnati.  The most exotic explanation for the loss was the “Clinton curse.” The former President, who was in Ashe Stadium tonight, was also at an Agassi match in Paris where the American idol was cruising against Sebastien Grosjean until the Commander-in-Chief came by and the Las Vegan went bust.

Sensible observers suggested that maybe reality at last was debunking the Federer mystique, the idyllic notion that just maybe this one athlete might do the unthinkable – beat time. Roger is 37. His foe, the chiseled Aussie workaholic, is just 29.

The great ones don’t show you they’re sweating. But Federer was dripping. “I just thought it was very hot tonight,” he explained. “One of those nights where I guess I felt I couldn’t get air. There was no circulation at all…[I] struggled in the conditions. It was one of the first times it’s happened to…Clearly [I] just kept on sweating more and more and more and more…You lose energy as it goes by…When you feel like that, you start missing chances.”

As Roger lost his fluids, so too, he lost his imposing swagger. We saw his worry, his fallibility. On this night the greatest of all time went down to a gallant journeyman. The Millman delivered one of the most stunning upsets in the history of a tournament whose brand is whiplash results.

Yes,  the well-conditioned Millman comes from Brisbane, which according to Federer, is one of the most humid places in the world. Still, Millman is no Rafa or Nole. He’s a well-traveled, popular warrior who knows well the gritty trenches of this game. He is loved in the locker room as a quintessential Aussie bloke. He battles and squeezes all he can out of his modest talents. His effort, said Roger, equals David Ferrer’s. Federer recently invited him to his Swiss home to be his practice partner. But he’s ranked No. 55, he’s 0-10 against top ten players and has never gotten beyond the third round of a Slam. All expected him to fall to the master and later tell the media, “What a pleasure it was to play Roger on Ashe.”

But tonight Roger was not Roger. He hit far too many drop shots. Just the other day Nick Kyrgios sang the praises of Federer’s vaunted backhand slice. But tonight it found the bottom of the net. Even Federer’s forehand, which has punished so many foes with a relentless fury, soared and veered. His mighty gun was muted. Plus, his dreamy serve was a nightmare. For the first time in Slam history he had ten double faults. Worst yet, the smooth operator suffered an astonishing 77 unforced errors. His legs had little explosion, his mind wavered.

Still he collected the first set 6-3, no problem. But then the man who closes out matches with a merciless Swiss precision, blinked. At 5-4 in the second set, Roger missed a forehand and an easy volley and hit a double fault.. He lost four games in a row and suffered 22 errors the set.

Federer had his chances to come back. He broke Millman’s serve in the fourth set, but immediately got broken back.

Twice in a row in the fourth set tiebreaker Roger double faulted. Worst of all you sensed it coming. Mighty Casey was striking out.

His loss brought to mind Pete Sampras falling to Jaime Yzaga in the fourth round in 1994, Alexander Volkov beating Stefan Edberg in the first round in 1990 or Roberta Vinci beating Serena Williams in 2015.

More to the point, it reflects a downward trend. He was up two sets on Kevin Anderson in the Wimbledon quarterfinals, but lost and he fell to Djokovic in Cincinnati. He told Inside Tennis that he had talked about Wimbledon before, that it was really fast conditions in Cincinnati and he was pleased that he had reached the final where, after all, he was facing Novak.

As for tonight, he confided, “at some point I was just happy that the match was over, I guess”

Federer glad a match was over? Try and wrap your head around that.

His millions of fans hope his career isn’t over. Gladly there is no real hint of that. After all tennis wants relish yet again that singular tonic: the grace and his glory of Roger Federer in full flight. Once again, they want to see this Superman sweat, but not nearly as much as he did on this dreary, dreadful day.  

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