WIMBLEDON -- He was already up a break in just the second game of the match, and after flicking a brilliant reaction shot past Kevin Anderson, eight-time Wimbledon champion Roger Federer reached 30-love. He was rolling. A few rows up in sunlit Court No. 1, a fan opened a bottle of champagne with an audible pop.
The celebration was premature.
Federer would rip through the first set in 23 minutes, but a little under four hours later the top seed would leave Wimbledon a beloved but bruised and beaten icon. He had wandered into the land of the giants, the territory populated by his opponent, Anderson, as well as potential semifinal opponents John Isner and Milos Raonic. He did not survive to see which one he might face in a penultimate match.
Anderson, the 6-foot-8 South African transplant to Florida, stood tall in the face of Federer's furious onslaught early in the match. Weathering it, he slowly consolidated and dialed in his big game until he nailed a final, unreturnable serve to Federer's backhand to win the match, 2-6, 6-7(5), 7-5, 6-4, 13-11.
"I feel horribly fatigued and just awful. It's just terrible. But that's how it goes, you know. Credit to him." Roger Federer
Afterward, Federer denied that mental fatigue played a role in the loss, even though he had won his last six five-set matches that went the distance while Anderson had lost his last three. It was a different story after the loss sank in. "I feel horribly fatigued [now] and just awful. It's just terrible. But that's how it goes, you know. Credit to him."
Instead of having been ground down, Federer suggested, he had just suffered "one of those days," the kind when things gradually go south, never to come back together. When the pieces don't fit together quite right. The kind of day that has occurred so infrequently in his storied career, and so rarely when the whole world is watching. Once Federer lost contact with his A-game, he kept searching for it like a guy trying to pull in a weak radio signal.
"The first set I felt great," he said. "I was reading the serve. He wasn't getting many aces. When I was on, I was making him play. From the baseline I felt like I could mix it up, play aggressive. There was a lot going on. But as the match went on, I couldn't surprise him anymore. That's a bad feeling to have."
That's an especially bad feeling for one of whom so much is expected. But the brooding confession partially concealed the role Anderson played in keeping Federer from recovering his momentum. Both men served well, which might have been expected. But Anderson was on point the entire time over the final three sets with his groundstrokes from the baseline, while Federer made surprisingly few adjustments in his game plan to throw him off. He may not have tried a single drop shot. He seemed to be waiting for Anderson's ground game to break down. It never did.
"I wasn't feeling particularly well off the baseline. I couldn't really get the rallies going the way I wanted to, especially the one-two punch wasn't working at all today," Federer said, referring to the deadly combination of his serve and first-strike forehand. "Once I couldn't get that going, once I was in the rallies, it was hard to get him moving."
Perhaps it was the breeze, Federer said, or maybe just a bad day on his side of the net. But he said he never really felt 100 percent. It was one of those days when, in the waning moments when it really counted, he was unable to put together one of those breathtaking blasts of genius that breaks down even the gamest of opponents.
In the coming days and weeks there's bound to be a great deal of speculation about what this means for Federer in the long term. There certainly was a ragged quality to parts of his game in the late stages, as he struggled to keep both an unruly forehand and his backhand in line. "You could see his concentration waver in that fifth set," Andrew Castle, the former player, said in a BBC post-match chat. "That's hardly surprising; after all, he is 36 years old."
Ah, there's that magic number, and that issue that will hang over Federer's head until the day he decides to call it quits.
Some, as eager to identify the moment a champion fails as the moment he first triumphs, may say this could be the beginning of the end. It certainly was a big lead he let slip, the first match he lost in five sets after winning the first two since Novak Djokovic came back to eliminate him in the U.S. Open semis of 2011.
But this was a quarterfinal at a Wimbledon where Federer had literally ripped through four previous matches. And Anderson is a lean and sinewy ball punisher, a 32-year-old who has worked tirelessly and more or less anonymously to become a Top 10 staple. He's a one-step-at-a-time guy, a defending US Open finalist who's earned a place alongside Marin Cilic, Juan Martin del Potro and Milos Raonic in the gallery of gruesome ace makers. No shame in losing to a player in that group by any score or number of sets on Wimbledon grass.
"I don't know how long it's going to take me (to get over this)," Federer said. "It might take me a while, might take me half an hour. I have no idea. Of course the goal is to come back here next year. I'm all right. I'm just disappointed now."
It's probably a good sign for those hoping to see Federer gambol across these lawns again that he admits that the infrequent losses hurt more as time goes on, "It motivates me to do extremely well because I don't want to sit here and explain my loss. That's the worst feeling you can have as a tennis player."
It sounds like there will be more opportunities for Federer fans to pop the cork on the champagne at Wimbledon.