Aging Federer being overtaken by youth

by | Senior Fantasy Writer
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KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- The ball went left, it went right, it went long. One ball even landed about four rows in the stands. Rarely, it seemed, did the ball find the middle of the court.

It was that kind of night for Roger Federer on Friday.

Rafael Nadal turned what was supposed to be an epic matchup into a quick contest. (AP)  
Rafael Nadal turned what was supposed to be an epic matchup into a quick contest. (AP)  
In a match that was hyped as a Grand Slam final, Federer faced rival Rafael Nadal in the semifinals of the Sony Ericsson Open. The crowd of 14,638 was standing room only, and scalpers were selling upper-deck tickets, which normally start at $45, at $150 each.

That's because Rafa vs. Roger is one of the best matchups in tennis history, along the lines of Bjorn Borg vs. John McEnroe and Pete Sampras vs. Andre Agassi, but rarely have they met on American soil. They have played each other 22 times prior to Friday, but the last time they met in North America took place at this tournament in 2005 when Federer beat Nadal for the title.

This match -- the first time these two have met before a final round since 2007 -- was expected to be another epic battle, but it never lived up to the billing as Nadal walked all over the error-prone Federer 6-3, 6-2. Nadal will now face Novak Djokovic in the finals Sunday while Federer sulked off the court.

He gave a token wave to the crowd and then had to face questions about his future. At 29, can the 16-time Grand Slam champion Federer -- arguably the greatest player in men's history -- still compete with the younger Nadal (24) and Djokovic (23)? Federer feels like he can still hang with the kids even if the results say otherwise.

"I don't know how many times I need to answer until I just say I'm not going to answer it anymore," Federer said. "Up to you how many times I will have to answer the question until I'm sick and tired of it. But I know I can do many more things in the game. Sure it's disappointing losing a game like tonight, but those are the matches I work extremely hard for in the offseason and practice, and I'm very excited by what's to come still. I don't feel like I'm 35. I'm still only 29, and I have many more years left."

It's hard for older players to accept when their game has slowed down. And even though Federer might not be there yet, he's getting close, since tennis has proven to be a young man's sport. The former No. 1 player in the world is now No. 3 behind Nadal and Djokovic, and he might be stuck there for the rest of his career. Nadal and Djokovic appear to have loosened the Federer stranglehold on men's tennis.

Roger Federer says so long after another loss drops him to 8-16 against Nadal. (AP)  
Roger Federer says so long after another loss drops him to 8-16 against Nadal. (AP)  
Federer is now 22-4 on the season with three losses to Djokovic and this loss to Nadal. He hasn't won a Grand Slam title since the Australian Open at the start of 2010, and Nadal made him look 35 on Friday. Nadal never lost serve, converted four of five break-point chances and Federer had 31 unforced errors. Every time Federer had the chance to make a rally he hit the ball long or wide, and his worst shot came in the first set when he hit the ball into the seats.

The crowd, hoping for a comeback in the second set, did their best to urge Federer on. They chanted his name, but unfortunately he came up empty in his effort to make the match competitive.

"I was confident," Federer said. "I was feeling well. Then again, regardless I'm not sure I would have beaten Rafa tonight. I just couldn't play my game."

Nadal is now 15-8 against Federer, but he might be setting his sights on Djokovic as his next rival. Earlier on Friday, Djokovic extended his winning streak to 25 consecutive matches by beating Mardy Fish in the other semifinal 6-3, 6-1.

Nadal and Djokovic met at the most recent tournament in Indian Wells prior to Key Biscayne, and Djokovic beat Nadal 4-6, 6-3, 6-2. Nadal holds a 16-8 advantage head-to-head, but Djokovic won their only meeting here in 2007, which was the year he won the Sony Ericsson Open title. Nadal has never won the title at Key Biscayne.

"He's playing fantastic," Nadal said. "On Sunday, I have to play very well for the entire match if I want to have any chance. I have to play aggressive, and I have to play all the points. … I'm going to have to play my best."

Federer said he gives the edge to Nadal. He also said "I wish I could play better against those guys, but it is what it is."

He's not used to watching other players meet in a final.

Federer is still an amazing player, and he will likely have many more outstanding moments in his career. But at 29, he needs to be near perfect against elite talents like Nadal and Djokovic, who are in their prime. Hitting the ball off the court and into the stands just won't cut it when the end is near.

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