Sad ending for Federer in France

PARIS -- This was probably the moment tennis fans have been dreading for a year or so, the one where Roger Federer is revealed -- and there is no kind way to say this -- as an old man.

The 31-year-old had already lost the first two sets to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, but Federer was desperately trying to stay within touching distance in the third. Serving at 3-all and facing a break point, he carved a sweet half-volley, the kind we have marveled at over the years. Problem was, it wasn't shallow enough, and Tsonga came charging in. Taking the ball at the service line, Tsonga hacked a heavy two-handed backhand right at Federer. The Swiss champion made no effort to hit the ball; he quickly turned his back, and the ball drilled him on the right shoulder blade. Tsonga raised his hand, as if to say sorry, but he wasn't.

Federer, on so many levels, was broken.

On Tuesday, Tsonga won this stunningly swift quarterfinal match 7-5, 6-3, 6-3 in nine minutes under two hours. He advances to a semifinal against David Ferrer, who lost only four games to Tommy Robredo in three sets.

This was Federer's first three-sets-to-love defeat to a player ranked outside the top five in nine years, when he fell to Gustavo Kuerten here in the 2004 third round.

Afterward, Federer was asked how difficult it was to face the media after a decimating defeat like that.

"Well," he said, "there's more fun things to do than this. So might as well get it out of the way with."

And so he did, classy all the way.

"I thought he played great today," Federer said of Tsonga. "He was in all areas better than me today. That's why the result was pretty clean, no doubt about it. I was impressed by the way he played."

Asked if his back was sound, Federer said, emphatically, that he had no physical issues.

Federer looked so good, carving up qualifiers in the first two rounds, that you began to wonder if he had another deep run at Roland Garros in him.

And then the reality of the aging process revealed itself in the fourth round when he labored to beat Gilles Simon in five sets. There was a moment when Federer caught the front of his right shoe in the red clay and took a tumble early in the second set that he looked, well, old. Federer later admitted he lost his confidence after that fall and temporarily checked out of the match.

Federer took the court for the quarterfinals against another Frenchman, Tsonga, a player three years his junior. Tsonga is a staggering talent, but he has never won a Grand Slam singles title; he was Novak Djokovic's first major finals victim, at the Australian Open in 2008.

On this day, Federer was never able to assert himself. He was actually up a break in the first set 4-3, 40-15 and slowly wilted. Maybe it was -- despite his denial -- an ailing back that limited his effectiveness. The groundstrokes, particularly his forehand, were dodgy, and compared to Tsonga at least, he seemed a step slow. His overheads sometimes bordered on atrocious. Federer never really found the fire that won him a record 17 major championships.

In the end, it was almost a little sad.

After he was broken for the sixth time, Federer walked slowly to the net, where Tsonga consoled him with a handshake and a pat on the back. Even his typical, spinning post-victory seemed a bit subdued.

And when Federer waked off Court Philippe Chatrier, head down, the crowd warmly applauded him. He looked a little startled, as if interrupted in thought, smiled (was it a grimace?) and applauded Tsonga's effort with a slow, 360-degree twirl of his own. And then he was gone.

In his postmatch news conference, Tsonga said he and his coach, Roger Rasheed, discussed Rafael Nadal's clay victories over Federer to learn how to force Federer "to play the wrong way." He did not elaborate.

"Here at Roland Garros, in France, on a big court with a lot of people, middle of the afternoon, and I just beat Roger Federer," Tsonga said. "I'm sure nobody expect that from me in the past, to be there on this court against Federer and have a good win. So for me it's just maybe one of the best victories. That's it.

"The tournament is not finished, and I hope I will have some more."

As we grow older, recovery becomes more difficult. In retrospect, it seems likely that the Simon match, even though it went one minute under three hours, compromised Federer's chances. The fact remains: Since winning 16 of 27 Grand Slams singles titles from 2003-10, Federer has been to only two major finals of the 13 contested since.

Thirty minutes after it ended, Federer said he was already looking forward to playing next week on the grass in Halle, Germany.

"For me, this is already pretty much past now," he said. "I have no choice but to move on. I have so many more things than to worry about right other than just this.

"This is obviously a crushing loss and disappointed about it, but now I look forward to other things. I love the grass-court season, especially since it's been 10 years since my first Wimbledon victory."

Federer has said he would like to play as long as his game remains relevant at the elite level. That would probably mean hanging around through the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Based on the career trajectories of the great players before him who lingered past their prime (Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi), it's not impossible to imagine, going forward, Grand Slam losses in the third and fourth rounds -- and, sometimes, in the first.

How will he cope with this defeat?

"I don't need anything special or anybody special," he said. "I'm old enough, you know. I'm a big guy. I'm no longer a baby."