Right from the start, Roger Federer looked very little like, well, the Roger Federer who routinely reached the final weekend at Grand Slam tournaments.
In the opening game of his fourth-round match at the U.S. Open, the owner of 17 major 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 trophy collection includes five from the U.S. Open.
'I kind of self-destructed, which is very disappointing. It was a frustrating performance.' —Roger Federer
He exited in the semifinals at the Australian Open in January, the quarter-finals 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 quarter-finals at 36 consecutive Grand Slam tournaments.
Now, thanks to Robredo, Federer has a new, unwanted streak: Two consecutive losses before the quarter-finals 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.
No Nadal-Federer quarter-final match
Heading into Monday, the buzz at the U.S. Open was all about looking ahead to a potential quarter-final 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 started in Arthur Ashe Stadium, and the Spaniard wound up improving to 19-0 on hard courts in 2013 with a 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-3, 6-1 victory over 22nd-seeded Philipp Kohlschreiber of Germany.
Nadal, who won the 2010 U.S. Open but missed it last year with a left knee injury, faced only one break point Monday, and Kohlschreiber blew it by putting an overhead smash into the net. Nadal has not lost any of his 56 service game so far through four matches.
"I don't want to lie. Happy for that. But I felt at the beginning today, I didn't serve my best," Nadal said. "In the next sets, I am very happy the way that I served. I was able to win a lot of points and ... start a lot of points in a good position."
He and Federer have met in four finals at the French Open, three at Wimbledon and one at the Australian Open, but they've never met in any round at the U.S. Open.
"Didn't happen. [Doesn't] mean cannot happen in the future. We'll see. Hopefully," the 27-year-old Nadal said. "But is true that we are getting older, so the chances are less today than five years ago."
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. Robredo missed time in 2011 and 2012 because of left leg problems that required surgery, and his ranking fell below 400th.
"Roger, when he was No. 1, [compared] to the Roger right now," Robredo said, "he's not maybe [playing] with the same confidence, no?"
Federer agreed with that assessment. He also was asked whether Robredo — who is 0-6 against Nadal — tried anything different this time around.
"No, he didn't. Pretty simple. No surprises," Federer said. "He didn't serve-and-volley or chip-and-charge. He stood back the way he usually does. He kick-served the way he usually does."
'Let's go, Roger'
Fans tried to get Federer going, singing, "Let's go, Roger, let's go!" or simply chanting his name. He even got support in Spanish, with one fan yelling, "Vamos, Roger! You're the best!" Here's the way Robredo described the atmosphere: When he walked out onto the court before the match, "it was like 2 percent of noise," while when Federer arrived at Louis Armstrong Stadium, it sounded "like a concert."
Federer originally was supposed to face Robredo in Ashe — the 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 face 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 men's action, No. 4 David Ferrer, the 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). In the quarter-finals, Ferrer will play No. 8 Richard Gasquet, who entered the day 1-15 in fourth-round Grand Slam matches but erased a match point and withstood 39 aces from No. 10 Milos Raonic to win 6-7 (4), 7-6 (4), 2-6, 7-6 (9), 7-5 on Court 17.
A long line of fans snaked across the grounds when Federer-Robredo was moved from Ashe to much smaller Armstrong, which holds about 10,000 spectators and has a lot less room separating the playing surface from the stands. Federer, accustomed to playing in Ashe, last competed in Armstrong in 2006.
He said that was not a factor in Monday's outcome, though. The blame, instead, belonged with his inability to hit his strokes the way he wanted.
Federer was particularly ineffective when he had chances on Robredo's serve. Time and again, Federer would get an opening, a chance to begin the long climb back into the match. And he kept letting those opportunities slip by.
"We all know the way he plays, how easy he can do everything," Robredo said. "But I think the difference today was the break points conversion."
That's true. Robredo went 4 for 7; Federer's poor play on break chances included 0 for 12 in the last two sets.
Soaked with perspiration, Federer flubbed a backhand to waste the last of five break points he had in the fourth game of what turned out to be the final set. He kicked the offending ball, a rare sign of frustration from the generally unflappable Federer. Well, unflappable against pretty much anyone other than Nadal, that is.
"I've definitely got to go back to work and come back stronger. Get rid of this loss now as quick as I can, forget about it, because that's not how I want to play from here on," Federer said. "I want to play better. I know I can."