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With loss, questions resurface about Federer's state of mind

TORONTO -- Were those tears again?

One of the most poignant moments following the Wimbledon final was watching Roger Federer being interviewed by John McEnroe and having to turn hurriedly away as his disappointment liquefied.

Now his return to the court had just ended in a 2-6, 7-5, 6-4 defeat to Gilles Simon in Toronto on Wednesday, and again his face betrayed the telltale signs of eyes welling up.

Poor Roger. Who could have imagined thinking those words a year ago?

The result itself is minor compared to the context. First the "hardest loss" of a career, then an opening-round exit in the following tournament -- two events that reverberate against each other and create an exponentially bigger ripple about Federer's game and state of mind. Is his confidence shattered?

More immediately, is this a Wimbledon hangover?

Federer shrugged. "You wouldn't have asked me that if I would have won, right?"

True, but that only highlights what's changed for Federer this season. For so much of the past four years, he's preempted probing questions by somehow sliping through the dangerous contests that crop up week in and week out. On his way to the Toronto title two years ago, Federer dropped the second set 7-5 twice -- to heavy hitters Dmitry Tursunov in the third round and Fernando Gonzalez in the semis -- but lifted his game and hit spectacular winners to soar through in the third. This time, he slumped instead, losing his grip on his forehand and serve in what's become an increasingly common theme to his defeats this year.

The shift is small, but the difference is enormous. Federer used to win the matches he could have lost. Now, he's losing matches he could have won.

"I guess, first match on hard court, I couldn't sneak through maybe the way I usually can," he said. "I think I get through the match and I get into the tournament and I start playing better. But I got caught cold, so it's kind of hard."

Defeat never seemed possible until it arrived. Federer cruised through the first set, looking like his usual free-flowing self while Simon blinked in the glare of the stadium lights and the glitter of Federer's game.

But Federer's forehand, which had been working so well in the early going, increasingly went astray during the late stages of the second set. The two exchanged breaks in the sixth and seventh games, but Federer played a loose game to drop his serve to love at 5-6 and suddenly found himself in a deciding third set.

The ship looked righted when Federer took a 3-1 lead in the third, but by now, an emboldened Simon put increasing pressure on Federer during rallies and took advantage of the top seed's erratic serving. Despite the cool evening, Federer was pink and glowing with sweat, having testy conversations with umpire Norm Chryst. Another exchange of breaks followed, and then, serving in the dangerous territory of 4-5, Federer produced four straight unforced errors to hand victory to a stunned Simon.

"Missed opportunities," was how Federer summed up the match afterwards. "I think I had everything to put him away … having an easy volley at 3-1, game point -- that cost me dearly in the end.

"One of those matches maybe I think I should never have lost."

It will probably cost him the No. 1 ranking over the next few weeks.

He couldn't hide the hurt afterwards, clutching his face with his hands when an oblique question about Justine Henin's retirement was lobbed during the postmatch press conference. "Not today. Ask me another day. Please don't kill me with questions like this."

But why the inability to find an extra gear these days? The setback at the beginning of the year, combined with the tantalizing closeness of the Grand Slam record, may have created a little extra pressure and concern that destabilized the near-perfect calibration he had achieved. Recently, the trigger has been squeezed too hard -- or sometimes, not enough. And as the losses pile up, the situation only feels more urgent. Roddick echoed this sentiment when talking about himself earlier in the week: "I felt like I was trying to play catch-up the whole time. I think that slowly kept at me and kind of culminated in what you saw in that match."

It's hard not to think back to Federer's classic comment at the Australian Open. "I've created a monster," he said. "I always need to win every tournament."

The monster has not been fed often this year, and its roars are growing increasingly loud. If Federer has a task now, it's to prevent this match he should have won from causing him to lose others down the road. He said he was rusty, having practiced for only three or four days after Wimbledon -- something he plans to rectify over the next few days. But a few more exits like this, and the season will soon be unsalvageable.

And he's already got a plan for the rest of the week: "Try to win the doubles here. That's what I'm looking at."

A small victory to aim for, but the monster might settle for it at this point.

Kamakshi Tandon is the online editor for Tennis.com.