Federer was simply due for loss, but his reign will continue

It's not often Roger Federer bids farewell to the crowd after suffering a loss. The last time he exited a Grand Slam prior to the final was three years ago at the French Open. AP Photo/Rick Stevens

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Most people would say that what tennis wizard Roger Federer has built, brick by brick and backhand by backhand, is a wondrous thing. It's also a weighty thing, and Friday night, it squatted on his shoulders like King Kong on the Empire State Building.

"I've created a monster, so I know I need to always win every tournament," Federer said after his streak of 10 straight Grand Slam finals appearances was ended by 20-year-old Serbian Novak Djokovic on Friday in the Australian Open semifinals.

The third-seeded Djokovic recorded a straight-sets upset, 7-5, 6-3, 7-6 (5).

The world No. 1 was feeling a little dark, and no wonder. Federer doesn't have a lot of recent experience in dealing with losses of this magnitude anywhere but on one particular patch of red earth in Paris. Still, it seemed like an awfully pessimistic view for a player who began this season at age 26 with a dozen Slams and counting, so we pressed him.

The slightest rueful smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. "Well, winning every other week, you know, lose a set and people say I'm playing bad," Federer said. "So it's my own mistake, I guess."

Of course, Federer's monster is one most athletes would love to have living in a crate in the corner, and his dominance over the past three seasons is a mistake they'd be happy to repeat.

The pie graph of his success would show an enormous chunk of work, a slice of aura and a sprinkling of luck. He has been remarkably free from injury or illness, so even something non-catastrophic -- like the bout of food poisoning that sent him to the hospital the week before the Aussie Open, interrupting his usual preparation -- seemed like a small harbinger of doom.

Federer wasn't willing to use that as an explanation for his occasionally listless, uncharacteristically error-strewn performace against Djokovic, although he conceded it is the first time he's been sick leading up to a Slam. "I would still rather have it before than during, that's for sure," he said.

"It might have had an effect on my movement, I don't know. But I definitely didn't feel as quick, you know, as some other times. I practiced really hard. I can't practice much harder in the offseason, so I did everything the right way. And maybe I did pay the price for being a little bit ill.

"You know, I like to give credit to my opponent, as well. I don't want to blame it too much on my own play. He came up with the shots at the right time, and that's all I can say, really."

The best explanation is that Federer was simply due. There was going to be an evening when his forehands fell short and he couldn't hold serve, although it was shocking to see him do it four out of five games in one stretch, costing him the first set and any forward momentum in the match.

There was going to be a moment when an opponent would lunge across the sideline to fetch a backhand volley he had no business reaching and bend it like Beckham around the net post on break point, as Djokovic did to go up 3-1 in the second set.

There was going to be a big match when one of the talented, hungry players in the pack of bounty hunters after his scalp would cash in on lessons learned in previous losses. Djokovic burned through seven set points when he fell to Federer in the 2007 U.S. Open final. He's clearly a quick study and it wasn't a massive stretch to predict he'd eventually figure out how to lift his game in response.

"The second set, he started just unloading," Federer said. "You know, that's not usually what he does. He can, obviously, and play aggressive. But, not on every shot. The way he played, he picked up every serve. It was fantastic. He did play great.

"Like I said, it cost me the match, maybe not serving it out the first set. That's what happens sometimes when you don't take your chances early on: you'll pay the price later on. That's what happened for me against [Janko] Tipsarevic almost. I just got out of that one."

The monster reared its head during the marathon against the 49th-ranked Tipsarevic, another fearless Serbian who forced Federer into the longest fifth set of his career in the third round. Federer wasn't able to put a stake through his until he came back from 40-0 on Tipsarevic's serve to break him in the 17th game of the set, then served it out. For Federer, who freely admits he'd rather win easily than have his mythology tested, it was another warning bell that he was not at his best.

"But semis is still, you know, pretty good," he pointed out. "But, yeah, I'll analyze and see if I have to make changes for next year. But, honestly, I think I did play pretty good. I didn't play my best throughout the championships, but it was pretty solid, so it was OK."

Hang on -- did he say next year? That's probably no slip of the tongue. Federer was a three-time defending champion here, but the surface changed slightly this year, and he is capable of adjusting his calibrations like no other player. He is planning for the long term.

Federer and Spain's Rafael Nadal have been one-two in the rankings since the middle of the 2005 season, an unprecedented period of lockstep. With Nadal ousted by fiery Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the other semifinal, much will be written and said in the next few days about new blood and a changing of the guard. Djokovic even playfully alluded to the battle for sponsor supremacy, pointing out that the final will be an all-adidas affair, no Nikes allowed.

But beware of declaring this the end of an era. Federer may be contending with a mighty beast as he pursues Pete Sampras' record of 14 Grand Slams, but he's got a lot of beautiful tennis left in him. If he has to contend with more than one significant rival to make history, that would only make the accomplishment more meaningful.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. E-mail her at bonniedford@aol.com.