Federer loss not the worst, but very telling

© Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY Sports

Art Spander

NEW YORK — The juxtaposition of headlines was thought-provoking. “WORST LOSS EVER!” screamed the back cover of the New York Post. That referred to the Mets, who blew a six-run lead in the ninth, not to Roger Federer, who let a lead get away at the end.

No, Roger’s defeat — “FEDERER STUNNED BY DIMITROV” was the adjacent headline — wasn’t his worst ever, but arguably, at his age and at this point in his career, it was one of his most telling ever.

Federer has been remarkable, winning more than 100 tournaments overall, winning 20 Grand Slams. But he hasn’t won a Slam since the 2018 Australian Open. He had never lost to Grigor Dimitrov. He had a 2-1 lead in games over him.

Then, like the Mets' relief pitching, it all came apart. Or for Dimitrov, it came together.

Dimitrov won, 3-6, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2. The longer the match went — it ended around midnight Tuesday — the worse Federer looked.

He had a neck and back problem. No excuses, he said, but no surprise either. When an athlete nears 40, the regimen, hitting thousands of balls, running cumulative thousands of miles, takes its toll.

Sport, like life, is a matter of being there, being ahead, holding off the demons and the opponents.

We are aware that Father Time wins every game, every match, so keep serving and keep dreaming.

Federer remains capable. He hasn’t lost his skills as, in their final seasons, did Willie Mays and Joe Namath.

“Don’t look back, something may be gaining on you,” was the fictional advice a public relations man attributed to the great ballplayer Satchel Paige.

Something is gaining on all of us. It’s just more apparent in the games we play.

Only a moment ago, it seems, a kid named Federer knocked the defending champion, Pete Sampras, out of Wimbledon in the fourth round. It was 2001, 18 years ago. Federer was an unpolished, occasionally immature 19-year-old, Sampras almost 30.

''You know, something great isn't going to last forever,'' said Sampras after the five-set match. ''Today, I came up a little short.''

As did Federer against Dimitrov. Sampras did win a U.S. Open in 2002, but an era had changed. Federer would come to dominate Wimbledon, as Sampras once had, and in time Federer would overtake Sampras' record for Grand Slam titles, which had been 17 and now is 20.

Federer made no concessions after the loss to Dimitrov. He spoke about an upcoming schedule, going forward. But the next Slam will be in January, the Australian Open. He’ll be heading towards 39, and even with modern training and medicine he’ll slip a bit.

Maybe, the way he couldn’t hold the lead against Dimitrov, he’s already slipped. In the final set, Federer never had a chance, and he knew it.

What neither he nor anyone knows is what the future holds.

“I don't have the crystal ball. Do you?” Federer said when asked what direction he’ll go. ”So we never know. I hope so, of course. I think still it's been a positive season. Disappointing now, but I'll get back up, I'll be all right.''

Close to Sampras’ forecast after that 2001 defeat by Federer. ''Let's not get carried away,'' Sampras said then. ''I mean, I just lost. I plan on being back for many years. I mean, this is why I play, for these tournaments. There's no reason to panic and think I can always win Wimbledon.”

He never did again. That kid from Switzerland took over.

It’s interesting to compare the viewpoints on their defeats, which even 18 years and two venues apart offer a common theme.

''He came up with some good stuff when he had to,'' said Sampras the day he was defeated by Federer. '['If I could have possibly broken him there, I think I could have gone on to win this match. It wasn't to be.''

But on Centre Court at Wimbledon in 2001 Sampras couldn’t break Federer. And late Tuesday night at Arthur Ashe Stadium in the U.S. Open, Federer couldn’t break Grigor Dimitrov.

“I thought he was tough off the baseline,” said Federer. “He mixed up well, which gave me all sorts of problems with the rhythm. Could never really feel comfortable off the baseline. That’s something in the past I've always been able to dominate, I'd say. That was not the case tonight. He did a good job there.”

As Sampras told us, something great isn’t going to last is forever.