It was always a little strange that Roger Federer came to his post-match press conference so late following his quarterfinal victory over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Wednesday night. That five-set battle finished at roughly 11.30pm, and when it was announced that the second seed would not be conducting his media conference until 12.15am, murmurs arose in the press room – why so late after an already late match?
Those murmurs intensified when Federer delayed his press conference until 1am. “He’s injured,” one journalist rationalised. And when the Swiss did finally emerge to face the media, he entered the theatrette stiffly and laboriously.
Federer insisted that physically he felt fine, and his movement was perfectly in order. But after Friday night’s 6-4 6-7(5) 6-3 6-7(2) 6-2 loss to No.3 seed Andy Murray – notable for his fadeout in the final set after snaring the fourth – it’s hard not to believe that conditioning played a part in the result.
That’s not to take anything away from Murray, who, it must be said, displayed exemplary form on Rod Laver Arena. He had arrived at the semifinal stage having not relinquished a set all fortnight, and was coming off a career-best 2012 season highlighted by an Olympic gold medal and first Grand Slam title at the US Open. Tellingly, when Murray served for the match late in the fourth set before Federer roared back and steamrolled through the ensuing tiebreak, the Scot didn’t wilt, instead wresting back control of the match.
Yet so many times, Federer played shots out of position, tangled up, a step slow. Tugged about the court by his more aggressive opponent, the Swiss’ usually exquisite footwork and cat-like movement simply weren’t as evident. There were times during a limp fifth set – which spanned just 30 minutes – that Federer didn’t even attempt to run down balls. It was a similar story at the Olympics, when after defeating Juan Martin del Potro 19-17 in an epic third set, he came out flat for the gold medal match – against Murray – and was summarily beaten.
Sportingly, the Swiss wasn’t buying into suggestions that fatigue played a part in his demise, despite never before in his career having played back-to-back five-set matches at a major.
“I was hoping to do a bit better, but overall obviously I'm pretty pleased with the tournament. I played good tennis. I'm moving well and was fit in the 10 sets I played, the last two matches,” he said.
“(The Tsonga match tired me) a little bit, but it's not an excuse for me tonight to say that I lost because of that. But obviously I wish I could have come in (fresh) like Andy, as well. Then again, he beat me fair and square tonight. No regrets from me.”
So if he generally felt fine, what was behind such a lacklustre start, and an uncharacteristically error-strewn performance? He finished the four-hour battle with 60 unforced errors (13 more than the Scot) to 43 winners, almost 20 less than Murray’s tally. Some of that was undoubtedly the pressure being heaped on him by the third seed, who smacked 21 aces to five and who was especially damaging on the move, striking several jaw-dropping passing shots and running winners.
“I think overall he probably created more chances than I did. I had difficulties … getting into his service games time and time again (un)like I usually do against him,” Federer reflected.
“It's normal that with time and with age you learn, you become more experienced, become physically better … obviously with (Murray’s) win I think at the Olympics and the US Open, maybe there's just a little bit more belief or he's a bit more calm overall.
“It seems like he has more peace when he plays out there, and in the process he has better results, I guess.”
It’s never pleasant to sound like you’re writing somebody off, but at 31 years old, one wonders just how much age now plays a factor in Federer’s physical health. The world No.2 has enjoyed a remarkably injury-free run throughout his career, and reportedly puts special emphasis on his recovery. But in the past three years at Melbourne Park, younger foes have gotten the better of him, all at the semifinal stage. In 2011 it was Novak Djokovic, 2012 it was Rafael Nadal, and now Murray. All are lauded for their movement, power and endurance, and all are roughly five years his junior.
Yet the Swiss has stated he intends to play on until the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. A truncated schedule – beginning this year – is designed to ensure he reaches that goal. Despite tonight’s setback, he has no plans of changing that plan, or how he approaches his matches.
“I’ve played these guys, what, 60 times, the three guys around me in the rankings. So we know each other really well. We play each other very close very often. Keep on trading wins and losses … I enjoy the matches with Rafa, Novak, and also Andy again tonight. It's nice playing five sets against him. It was tough tennis. I enjoy that,” he said.
“So I go from here with a good feeling for the year. I didn't play a tournament leading in, so now obviously I know where my level is at. Also knowing I have even more time to work on my game, work on my fitness this year.
“It's something I'm excited about.”