Roger Federer of Switzerland wipes the sweat from his face during his semifinal match against Novak Djokovic of Serbia at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016.(AP Photo/Andrew Brownbill)

Roger Federer’s Twilight Zone isn’t what you think it is

Roger Federer, being 34 years old, could be viewed as a tennis player who is stepping into the twilight of his career.

Whether or not that view is supremely fair or substantive is another question, but the idea that a 34-year-old tennis player stands in or near the twilight realm of his (her) journey is certainly not preposterous on its face.

There are many fascinating points to ponder in the wake of Federer’s four-set loss to Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open semifinals on Thursday night. A match which had two acts — but revealed the magnificent Djokovic as a player at the height of his prime — naturally invites a lot of questions:

Is the Djokovic who played the first two sets the player we’re going to get in 2016 and 2017?

Is the Federer who played the third set the player we’re going to get this year?

Should Djokovic be judged by the untouchable, unplayable, unfathomable standard he established in the first two sets, or in light of the match as a whole?

Should Federer accordingly be judged by the way he fought back, or by the match as a whole?

We all have our own internal answers and inclinations — we might feel free to broadcast them, or we might want to hold them inside ourselves until a later point in the tennis season. We might be sure of what we think and feel, or we might need time to process the fascinating, multi-dimensional match we saw in Rod Laver Arena.

A lot is being written about Djokovic, and rightfully so. Winners reshape the history books, especially when they do so in the manner of the World No. 1. How Djokovic fits into this story cannot be removed from an appreciation of Federer, but let’s begin to try to make sense of where the Swiss stands in the grander scheme of things.

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If you are a student of history, especially this resplendent era in men’s tennis, the first two sets of Djokovic-Federer XLV recalled one match and one match alone:

Federer vs Nadal – Roland Garros 08 [HD] Final from RogerFedererGenius1 on Vimeo.

On that June Sunday in 2008, Rafael Nadal pulled off what had been, until then, a virtually impossible feat, and remains incredibly rare today: He made Roger Federer irrelevant.

Federer’s presence and career certainly didn’t cease to be relevant, of course, just because he got manhandled in one match. The meaning of that statement is that it didn’t matter what Federer did or tried to do; he was going to lose that day. There was no safe place to go to, no rock on which he could rest his game, no visible pathway to the winner’s circle. Nadal, in the form he displayed that afternoon in Paris, was going to win. It was only a question of “by how much?” or “how quickly?”

You just don’t make Roger Federer irrelevant. How can you take the most devastatingly potent offensive player in modern times and render him a bystander? It’s been one of the hardest things to do in tennis for roughly 12 years. Yes, Nadal and Djokovic have both worn him down and overpowered him on many dozens of occasions — with Djokovic’s win, both men lead Federer in all-time head-to-head matchups (more on that in a bit) — but in almost all instances, Federer had (break-point) chances to turn the match in his direction. He might not have carried the run of play in many of those matches, but there was always the possibility he could engineer a turnaround.

In the 2008 Roland Garros final against Nadal, no such possibilities existed.

In the first two sets of the 2016 Australian Open semifinals against Djokovic, the same was true. There was no opening, no light, no hope, no chance, no sir. Novak Djokovic had dealt some very convincing thumpings to Federer over the course of 44 previous meetings. None were quite as authoritative as what Rod Laver Arena spectators and a worldwide television audience saw in those first two stanzas.

This wasn’t about Federer or his 34-year-old body or any tactical decisions he did or didn’t make.

This was about his opponent soaring to the greatest of heights — Everest, Olympus, or maybe Felix Baumgartner’s perch:

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The belief that every match is on Federer’s racquet is debatable, but it’s certainly worth considering, given that Federer has defined his game and career by striking at the first possible moment of opportunity and taking the most direct line between the start of a point and its end. Thursday, in those first two sets, there was zero doubt that the match had nothing to do with the shots Federer hit. They (virtually) all came back, with interest. They came back with depth, speed, precision, ferocity, and unrelenting consistency. Federer had nowhere to hide.

The match was certainly not on his racquet. He was naked, stripped bare of any defenses or hopes… and his tennis was fundamentally irrelevant to the proceedings. It wasn’t even his fault. In one sense, it’s easier to accept when your opponent turns into a divine being. In another sense, of course, it has to sting to be rendered that powerless, that peripheral to an event in which you’ve invested a lot of work and belief.

This is what Djokovic did in the first two sets:

This match started at roughly 3:40 a.m. Eastern time, 12:40 a.m. Pacific time, in the United States. If you didn’t have a chance to watch the match and are wondering, “Did those two points above represent how the entirety of the first two sets went?”, let me help you out with the answer:

YES. That’s how the whole of the first two sets played out. It didn’t matter what Federer did. He became irrelevant to the action. It was Roland Garros 2008 all over again, only this time, a match wasn’t being played on clay, which magnified Djokovic’s work. (That Federer was an “in-his-prime” 26 years of age, just two months short of turning 27, made Rafa’s rout at Roland Garros a lot more impressive when seen from that vantage point.)

Plenty of bloggers and commentators were preparing their match reports with ample references to the 2008 French Open. It seemed nothing was going to snap Djokovic out of his zone. Even when Federer doggedly held serve to start the third set, it just seemed like a blip on the radar, nothing that would fundamentally alter the course of the contest and how it would be remembered.

Yet, when Federer held again for 2-1, the idea that Djokovic held the match in a lockbox suddenly gave way to a looser and more fluid reality. Federer became more liberated on serve, and the tone of the match became different, with the crowd inside Rod Laver Arena becoming more urgent — in wanting to see more tennis, yes, but also in pulling for Federer to do well.

With Djokovic serving at 2-3 in the third, this happened:

Not too much later, this happened:

Djokovic was still the in-match favorite, without question, but Federer — even in his relatively advanced tennis age — had managed to take a set off a God-mode version of Djokovic. Perhaps God-mode Nole won’t emerge in Sunday’s final, but if that version of the World No. 1 does take the court, let’s see Andy Murray or Milos Raonic take a set from the ascendant and reigning player of the moment on the ATP Tour.

Federer’s feat in that third set was substantial. Ironically, it was Federer’s best set of the 2016 Australian Open — a set produced in defeat. (Arguments about breezing past Alexandr Dolgopolov or David Goffin, two fundamentally soft and unimposing opponents, will not be heard or considered. Maybe Federer’s 6-2 second set over Tomas Berdych can be considered, but that’s the only competitor from this tournament.)

In the fourth set, Djokovic — at 30-all and 4-3 on Federer’s serve in the fourth — benefited from a net cord which prevented his opponent from knocking away a volley he was prepared to hit. One point later, a poorly-chosen approach on a second serve doomed Federer to a loss of serve. Djokovic held at love to close out the match. Ultimately, the markedly better player won. The player who had a two-sets-to-one lead put himself in position to win the match with one twist of good fortune. That’s how sports goes. Federer cannot regret how he played this match (tactically) or competed within it. He was just beaten by a man who is setting the bar far higher than everyone else.

Gee, I wonder who used to do that in men’s tennis from 2004 through 2009?

Federer — before the 4-3, 30-all hinge point which led to his exit from Australia — left behind one last shimmering memory of his tenacity, skill, and every last virtue which has made him the unforgettable icon he will never cease to be:

What are we left to say after this layered match with split personalities?

Through two sets, Roger Federer was rendered irrelevant. At the end of the night, he was still beaten, but he had left a substantial and indelible mark on the crowd and his opponent. Federer willed his way into remaining relevant… even when the world’s best player played his best for two whole sets.

His opponent couldn’t ward off defeat, but Federer could indeed remind everyone that 34 years of age does not have to refer to “twilight” in the pejorative (or sad) sense of the term.

Yes, Djokovic calmly responded to adverse in-match developments, in the face of a crowd which desperately wanted his opponent to win. This pattern continues unabated, and it’s a measure of the champion Djokovic is that he keeps drawing water from the well instead of coming up dry. As stated above, Djokovic is getting ample ink, and every last syllable of it is deserved. I will surely have more to say about him, presumably after he trounces the Murray-Raonic winner on Sunday to gain his 11th major title.

For now, though, consider Federer’s place in the tennis world. It’s twilight… but not in the way we commonly think of the term as it relates to aging athletes.

This twilight is more “The Twilight Zone,” a unique dimension of space and time in which Federer is losing not because of his own fading skill (the version of Federer seen in sets three and four probably beats Murray and everyone else on tour), but because his opponent lives with the gods in a realm of unmatched brilliance. That realm is what Federer used to inhabit. He saw it unfold with Nadal in both 2008 and 2010. He saw it happen for Djokovic to one degree in 2011. He saw it emerge to an even greater degree for Nole in 2015… and now into 2016, without interruption.

Looking at Djokovic, and looking at the rest of the men’s field over the next three years, it really does seem likely — not just “peripherally possible” — that Serbia’s dominant champion will get 18 major titles (if not more) before he’s through. The lack of competitors from the cohort of players aged 23-26 should give Djokovic many looks at majors when he’s 31, 32 and 33 — where Federer has held up so well over the past few years, save 2013. Federer ought to be finding it hard to win majors these days against prime players five years his junior. When Djokovic gets to Federer’s age in a few years, though, he might not face the same obstacles. Djokovic really could surpass Federer, as high as Roger set the bar during the prime years of his own journey.

Naturally and not without reason, Federer fans will protest this. I would also acknowledge that things change quickly in tennis, making these predictions of mine just that — predictions, and hardly guarantees of future results. It did seem, after all, that when Rafael Nadal won his 14th major title at the 2014 French Open, HE was going to catch and perhaps pass Federer’s 17 major titles. Then the Spaniard ran into some injury problems, fought his confidence, and today, he’s still at 14. Federer fans certainly have reason to think that Djokovic will soon slow down.

Fair enough. Just realize that Djokovic might not face the same impediments to age-33 titles that Federer has had to deal with. If Djokovic manages to remain on top of his game for five more years, he has a very realistic chance of winning — no joke — 20 majors.

This possibility, contemplated in the present moment, could make a lot of Federer fans feel awful. It could make Federer himself feel eclipsed and, therefore, a bit diminished. I say this not merely to exalt Djokovic, however (though certainly in part). I say it because of what this match showed on Thursday night.

Very simply, Federer — by refusing to allow himself to be defeated in such an easy way, by competing as well as he did on a night when his opponent played two sets of essentially perfect tennis — managed to enlarge himself in defeat. It’s rare when that happens, but if you stop and think about Fed for a bit, the last four years have been all about that one remarkable ability on the part of the Swiss: How many times do we find ourselves marveling at the man even when he loses?

In terms of single-match instances, recall what a great match Federer played in the 2014 Wimbledon final, one month short of turning 33. What a battle he gave Djokovic at the U.S. Open, even when he was clearly not at his best, just a month after turning 34. What a spirited comeback attempt on Thursday in Melbourne, when Nole had occupied the stratosphere.

Beyond single matches, understand this about the Federer-Djokovic head-to-head, which the Serbian superstar finally leads, at 23-22, after years of pursuit: While Federer certainly landed a lot of blows in the earlier stages of the rivalry, the amount of matches being contested by the two has grown mostly because Federer has remained relevant at an age when most players would fade from the scene.

Look at the totals (click on the “Event Breakdown” tab) and you’ll see this in vivid detail. In none of the first nine years of their rivalry (2006-2014) did the two men play more than five matches against each other. In 2014, they were scheduled to meet a sixth time in the championship match of the ATP World Tour Finals, but Federer’s back injury and the reality of the upcoming Davis Cup created a walkover. Nole and Fed never took the court for that match.

It was only in 2015 that Federer and Djokovic played more than five matches: eight, to be precise. From 2006 through 2009, when Federer was still in his prime, the two men played 19 times. They played five times in 2010, the year which started with Federer on top, and ended with Djokovic about to initiate his resplendent reign. From the start of 2011 — the Age of Novak, as his fans rightly and accurately call it — Federer and Djokovic have played 21 times, and more often as Federer has gotten older.

This re-creates — against Djokovic — a similar dynamic Federer gave birth to in his rivalry with Nadal: Federer has hurt himself in the specific arena of head-to-head results against a chief adversary only because he’s been good enough to put himself in position to lose.

Federer, by being good enough on clay — his “weakest” surface, but only in the sense that his credentials on grass and cement are that much better — put himself in position to accumulate lots of losses to Nadal. Similarly, by being good enough to still make major semifinals and finals with great regularity at age 33 and 34, Federer has put himself in position to lose more to Djokovic.

It’s counterintuitive, but it is fundamentally true: Federer somehow manages to make himself greater even when the most immediate facts of a situation (losing to Djokovic or Nadal) suggest that he should be seen as something less than he previously was.

This is the Twilight Zone Federer inhabits. He is the Jack Nicklaus of tennis: winning tons of majors and finishing in the top three when he fails to lift the trophy. Yet, at the same time, he is watching Novak Djokovic (like Nadal at Roland Garros in 2008) become the new Jack Nicklaus, poised to pass him in the course of human events:

Federer is caught between dimensions. He is seeing in Djokovic (as he saw in Nadal) the dominant figure he once was. He might be totally different in style from his two great fellow-travelers in the Golden Era of men’s tennis, but he can surely see and appreciate what Nadal did, and what Djokovic is doing… because he was the one who did it first and best.

It’s all so strange, all so hard to easily put into perspective. That’s what happens when you enter…

… The Twilight Zone.

*

Losses often diminish athletes. They sometimes make athletes irrelevant, as Nadal did to Federer in 2008, and as Djokovic had begun to do in the first two sets of this Australian Open semifinal. Yet, other losses — while not to be seen as cuddly moral victories or as attainments of goals — nevertheless magnify the loser as well as the winner.

Federer, the dashing artist who fights like a junkyard dog — an irresistible combination for so many — somehow manages to enlarge himself even when he loses, the most famous example being not a match against Djokovic, but his 2008 Wimbledon final against Nadal.

It leads to this final point about Federer being in a “Twilight Zone” of science fiction more than a true twilight in his career: If you enlarge yourself even when you are surpassed by an opponent, how can you possibly regret anything about the result or the journey which led up to it?

Pete Sampras set one standard, and Federer most clearly eclipsed it. Sampras, by all accounts, has taken joy in seeing Federer rise to such heights. Sampras is a gentleman of the sport, one who is perfectly at peace with the reality that future generations are meant to reach higher than those who have gone before them. It is the cycle of life. It is the order of creation. It is how the world works.

Yes, it’s a long way to Tipperary for Novak Djokovic on the road to an 18th and then a 20th major title, but let’s just address the matter very briefly to perhaps prepare you for the event, should it come to pass in 2018 or 2019: If Djokovic surpasses Federer, it will not reduce or diminish the Swiss’s place in history — not as an achiever, not as a craftsman, not as a competitor, not in any way other than the numerical positions on various all-time lists. What was once “1” will become “2.”

More relevant to this discussion as it concludes: It was never — and will never be — the result of Federer’s failure to try to stand in the way, both as an extension of the old(er) man’s will and the skill level he continues to demonstrate at age 34.

It is, in the end, no more complicated than this: If your opponent is too good, you simply tip the cap. Borg eclipsed Connors. Sampras typically bested Andre Agassi. Federer climbed higher than Sampras. Nadal topped Federer head-to-head, though on the grander historical scale, the Swiss appears almost certain to finish with more majors at this point.

If Novak Djokovic can continue to be the kind of player he was on Thursday night, to the extent that he reaches 20 majors, should Federer feel the sting of dissatisfaction or taste the bitter herbs of regret?

Not when there’s nothing to regret in the first place.

Not when you continue to make yourself larger even when you lose.

That last reality is the defining mark of this latter stage of Roger Federer’s career, a career in which he’s been good enough to lose to all-time legends on their best surfaces (Rafa on clay) or in their fullest prime periods (as Djokovic is now)… or both.

Twilight and Roger Federer — the relationship between an idea and a man is not what you think it is. To the very end of Thursday’s match, Federer improbably changed a story in a way that made him greater.

It’s what he’s been doing for the past 12 years.

What’s even better than that? He shows no real signs — not yet — of losing this bottomless capacity to make us hold him in even higher regard… even when (and precisely because) he loses.

 

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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