NEW YORK -- Success became a burden. Roger Federer couldn't accept defeat. "I got spoiled," he conceded.
So did everyone. As the wins became losses, the praise became doubt. And criticism.
He had aged, we were reminded. He had slipped. He was finished.
|'I'm confident the results will come back eventually,' Roger Federer says. 'I'm doing all the right things.' (Getty Images)|
He has returned for a seventh straight year to the semifinals, where on Saturday he meets Novak Djokovic.
The negative streak is over. Two consecutive Slams -- this year's French Open and then Wimbledon -- Federer failed to get past the quarterfinals, after playing in the semis in 23 consecutive Grand Slams, starting with Wimbledon 2004. What were we to think?
"Everybody around me gets spoiled," Federer said. "When I don't win the tournament, basically, or go to the finals, it is sometimes not good enough for people and for myself, so everybody talks in a different way all of a sudden. That's something I have to deal with."
In this Open, he has dealt with the talk in the most effective manner possible, by winning each of his five matches in straight sets, unbothered by the wind swirling inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, a wind that has flummoxed so many others.
He also has been unbothered by opponents who have included the man who stopped the streak, Robin Soderling.
That was in the quarters at the French Open, on the clay of Roland Garros, a surface that Federer finally conquered last year, giving him a title in all four Grand Slams.
It wasn't revenge Federer said he gained in defeating Soderling, 6-4, 6-4, 7-5, late Wednesday night, it was satisfaction. It was verification.
Federer showed he still can bring it, still can return like a champion, still can find the corners like the brilliant competitor we had known.
"I just feel happy that I played a good match under tough circumstances against a player who's really hard to beat these days, especially on hard courts," Federer, once again humble, said of the win over Soderling.
"What I meant was, I don't need, you know, revenge to fuel my motivation. I really don't, because I love playing in the stadium in front of people like this. I love tennis, and that's enough motivation for me to really get it going."
It had been a difficult few months for Federer. His quarterfinal loss to Tomas Berdych at Wimbledon was fraught with implications. Roger had been to the final of the All-England Championships seven consecutive years, had won it six of those seven. Now he couldn't even reach the semis.
Federer responded poorly. He blamed himself, and an aching back, instead of giving credit to the young Berdych, unbecoming of a man who has been called the greatest of all time, who has won a record 16 Slams.
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He dropped from second to third in the rankings, the first time Federer had been that low since 2003. He similarly dropped in the esteem of others for what seemed a response lacking the class expected of a great sportsman.
At Toronto in August, days after he had recorded his first tournament victory of 2010, in Cincinnati, Federer attempted to explain his Wimbledon reaction.
"I don't think I was frustrated after my loss from Wimbledon," said Federer, who although fluent in four languages sometimes gets syntax mixed up.
"I was disappointed that my body wasn't holding up and that Berdych played such a good match, and that I couldn't defend my Wimbledon dream again."
Federer knows what every veteran athlete knows: Eventually, no matter the talent and the desire, time is the ultimate winner. A tennis player in his late 20s is nearing the end.
How many chances remain? Rafael Nadal, the favorite here, the No. 1 seed, is five years younger than Federer, a virtual lifetime in a sport where there's always another 18-year-old in the rear-view mirror.
In what could be considered a sign of desperation or of intelligence, Federer, after Wimbledon, hired as his coach Paul Annacone, who along the way worked with Pete Sampras and Tim Henman.
"The goal has always been for me to improve as a player," said Federer. "I've always questioned myself in the best of times and in, you know, the worst of times even though there were not many worst moments, bad moments the last seven years or so.
"I'm confident the results will come back eventually. I'm doing all the right things. ... Sometimes the press gets too carried away. It's understandable with the success. But I had mono, the lung infection, back issues a couple of times, so I was lacking some practice. But at the same time I had a great run, I think, the last two or three years."
He's had a great run in this Open, but it won't mean much unless he beats Djokovic and then meets Nadal in the final everyone wants, especially Federer.
Whatever happens, Roger has provided one lasting memory: In his opening match, against Brian Dabul, he hit a no-look, between-the-legs-backward winner.
"I turned around," said Federer who also hit one of those last year, "and couldn't believe the shot landed in the corner."
Maybe it was an omen, an indication that no matter what others believe, one more time Roger Federer can land on top of tennis.