NEW YORK -- The mastery he had shown while rolling through his other U.S. Open matches in the past week and while winning titles at Cincinnati and Wimbledon before that to grab back the No. 1 ranking -- that was suddenly gone.
Even a mere two or three games into his U.S. Open quarterfinal match Wednesday night, it was clear Roger Federer was getting dragged into the sort of dogfight that felt like an unwanted flashback to those two fallow years in which he went a career-long nine Grand Slams without winning a title. Tomas Berdych -- the sixth-seeded Czech star across the net from him at Arthur Ashe Stadium -- looked bigger, stronger and increasingly more capable of overpowering him. Berdych seemed determined to keep hammering at Federer until fatigue or doubt or the relentless barrage of groundstrokes he kept blasting at him conspired to drag Federer down.
The early shock wasn't just how devastatingly well Berdych's attack worked -- it was how much Federer, a five-time champion here, was helping Berdych out on the way to a 7-6 (1), 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 loss that sent Berdych winging into one of Saturday's semifinals opposite Andy Murray, another man who is still chasing his first Grand Slam title. And Federer, he leaves New York with what to make of his summer-long run, which is looking a little muddier than it did before he regained the No. 1 ranking and broke a tie with Pete Sampras by winning his record seventh career Wimbledon singles title.
"I've got to go back to the drawing board right now and see what is the priority [for the rest of the year]," a downbeat Federer said immediately after the match. "I've said it 100 times: It's been amazing -- I'm back to No. 1. To win Wimbledon, but we don't need to talk too much about that right now. I lost the match. A very disappointing match for me."
Federer went into the match having surrendered his serve only once in his previous 91 games, but against Berdych, he coughed it up twice in the first set alone.
Federer hadn't played a match in four days because of Mardy Fish's withdrawal from the tournament Saturday with undisclosed health problems. And now, odd as it seemed, it was as if that walkover had turned Federer into a pushover instead of coming as a godsend for his 31-year-old legs. He sprayed far too many shots long and wide in the first two sets. Something he said in a brief TV interview before going out suddenly sounded like foreshadowing, even if he had meant it as an off-handed joke. Federer said he hoped he'd still be "the player I was before" he got to the courts Saturday and began his warm-up -- only to find out he wouldn't be playing after all.
"I should come in here with tons of energy, ready to go, but who knows?" Federer said after the match. "If you get that day in, that match with Fish, [it's] maybe more confidence, who knows? Maybe that was something that the first two matches didn't give me enough. I don't know."
Berdych had a lot to do with that. He still won this match more than Federer lost it.
It's just that Federer had been so good lately, outsiders were back to marveling that he didn't look old anymore -- he was back to being the insatiable champion for whom winning has never gotten old.
Berdych went into this match with a 3-3 head-to-head record against Federer, including an upset a couple of years ago at Wimbledon that was part of the downtick that left everyone saying Federer's career was at the beginning of its end. And still, when Berdych seemed to blink in the third set -- coughing up a break in a game in which he double-faulted twice and Federer came rushing back to push the match to a fourth set -- the second surprise of the match was even bigger than the first one Federer gave everyone by striking so many early off-target shots.
Federer, once tennis' ultimate closer, couldn't close out Berdych as he had done to upset-minded challengers so many times before.
"The momentum switch no doubt gave me a chance to put the score back to zero, to put him further away from winning and make the match go longer, make it more physical, more mental," Federer said.
"I just didn't come up with the goods."
It's going to take a more distant vantage point than this to figure out whether it was just an off night that sent Federer falling out of the tournament or a reminder that another telltale sign of the greats getting overtaken by age is they can still hit some great heights, all right -- they just can't keep it up as consistently as before.
Federer wasn't especially interested in getting into any of that afterward. He also said he isn't sure how he'll approach the rest of the year -- and he meant it literally, rattling off his possible schedule and saying this loss is going to force him to "go back to the drawing board." But you could take that statement metaphorically, too.
Andy Roddick retired this week because he could no longer be "all-in." Rafael Nadal isn't here because of his ongoing physical maladies. But Federer isn't likely to walk away from here believing Berydch was just too good. The takeaway from this had to feel more damning to Federer because this wasn't an epic loss. It wasn't a cliffhanger that left everyone limp. The truth was, in many ways, Federer beat Federer before Berdych got around to it. And there haven't been many times at a Grand Slam when Federer has had to walk away having to swallow that.