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4:37PM

Federer makes excuses after making too many mistakes

By Art Spander

NEW YORK — There had to be a morning after. It arrived hot and clear Tuesday — but without clarity about what happened a few hours before, the upset of tennis upsets.

Another match was starting right there at Ashe Stadium, one in which another surprise would take place, U.S. Open women’s defending champ Sloane Stevens losing to Anastasia Sevastova of Latvia.

So quick the turnaround. So lasting the results. We had awakened in the city that doesn’t sleep wondering — and for his legions of fans, many who follow him if not to the ends of the earth at least to locales such as Melbourne, Indian Wells, Stuttgart, Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows — worrying.

What the heck happened as Monday night, Labor Day, crossed into Tuesday? How could Roger Federer, acknowledged as the greatest male player in history, winner of 20 Grand Slam championships, not only get beat but truly get embarrassed in his fourth-round match against a journeyman named John Millman?

When the match came to a merciful close at 12:51 a.m. Eastern Time, after some three and a half hours of poor serves and unforced errors on a steam bath of an evening, there was Federer looking gaunt and whipped, and his disbelieving fans looking miserable.

Millman, No. 55 in the rankings (Federer is second) won, 3-6, 7-5, 7-6. 7-6, Roger made 10 double faults. Roger made 77 unforced errors. Roger made what could be interpreted as an excuse, saying, “I thought it was very hot tonight. I guess I couldn’t get air. There was no circulation at all. For some reason, I just struggled in the conditions.”

Even if they were the same for both players. “He practices in the humidity in Perth,” Federer said of Millman, an Australian.

Federer was 37 in August. He insists it was the weather that had an effect, not the age. He began the year by winning the Australian Open in January. That was a long time ago.

At Wimbledon he lost to Kevin Anderson in the quarterfinals, here to Millman a round before the quarters.

Roger Federer is not finished. He may, however, be finished as the Roger Federer we once knew. As he sank in his chair courtside after the final point, he looked ancient.

Great athletes decline, some faster than others, some slower. Tom Brady, still a starting NFL quarterback, is 41; Willie Mays, in his 40s, seemed to lose it overnight, unable to get fly balls and striking out. Federer was sharp enough in the third-rounder against Nick Kyrgios. And yet…

“The roof is on,” said Federer about the stadium that has a retractable middle, which can be closed when it rains but permanent sides. “I think it makes it totally different. Plus conditions were playing slower this year on top of it.

“You had soaking wet pants, soaking wet everything, Plus the balls are in there too. You try to play. I’ve trained in tougher conditions. I’ve played in the daytime. Some days, it’s just not the day where the body can cope.”

Novak Djokovic, who was going to meet Federer in the quarters if the predictions stood up — they didn’t — did play in the afternoon Monday. He’s younger than Federer, if that means anything. Federer would tell you that it doesn’t.

Federer, as losers often do, was talking what could have been, what might have been, If only that return hadn’t gone long. You know the routine, never wanting to bring up the slightest chance for self-doubt.

"I wish I could have led two sets to love, and then maybe the match would be different and I would find a way,” said Federer. "It was just tough. I thought John played a great match in difficult conditions. I'm happy I'm getting a rest now. Then I come back for the Laver Cup and hopefully finish the year strong."

Which he might do. Or might not. The longer one plays, the more his skills and quickness diminish.

The next major, the Australian Open, isn’t for another four-plus months. Time is not on his side but on the other side of the net.

9:12PM

Federer hits around the net — and hits the jackpot

By Art Spander

NEW YORK — He gave them what they wanted, and a little more. Roger Federer was on stage — well, on court at Arthur Ashe Stadium, not that there’s much difference — and on his game, fighting off service breaks, moving gracefully and effectively, and then pulling off a shot that bordered on disbelief.

A shot that had his opponent, Nick Kyrgios, who is famous for the spectacular — and the self-destructive — literally gaping and then gesticulating. A shot that Federer agreed was one of his more unique ones in a unique career.

It didn’t mean much in the flow of the match Saturday, coming in the third set, which Federer would win as he won the first two. But the shot — Federer dashing in for a low bouncer and then hitting the ball around the net, not over — was highlight video stuff, as in “Hey, Mabel, you got to see this.”

Federer dominated Kyrgios, 6-4, 6-1, 7-5, and so moves into the fourth round of the U.S. Open, a tournament he has won five times. True, Kyrgios had chances early on, but he couldn’t take advantage, hardly a surprise, and then Federer played like Federer, in control.

Roger will be 38 in a week, but age no longer seems important. That Casey Stengel line when he got fired as a manager because he was too old, “I’ll never make the mistake of being 70 again,” is inconsequential. Friday night, Serena Williams, almost 37, beat sister Venus, who is 38.

Tennis, as golf, is a sport of recognition. Fans cheer for Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. And for Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal. And when Federer pulls off a shot as he did, it’s a bonus.

“It was unbelievable,” said Kyrgios. Then with a smile he chirped, “I’m probably going to place it on Instagram.”

Kyrgios is the 23-year-old Australian with a big serve and erratic style. Only Thursday, the chair umpire in Kyrgios’ match against Pierre-Hugues Herbert was so disturbed by what he thought was a lack of effort by Kyrgios he climbed down from his chair to give Nick some advice — thereby going against the sport’s protocol.

The Aussie, who often says he would rather be in the NBA than the ATP (the men’s pro tennis tour), was on his best behavior Saturday and, for the first few games, on top of Federer. But it’s a matter of history: the longer the competition continues, the greater the odds that the better player will win.

Even without a stunning shot.

“He played really well today,” Kyrgios said of Federer, who he beat three years ago, his only win now in four matches between the two. “I didn’t play my best tennis, but I couldn’t have done much I thought.”

Except marvel at that shot around the net.

“I was trying to tell him the shot wasn’t that good,” joked Kyrgios. “No, it was almost unreal. It almost got to a point where I wanted him to start making shots like that, and I finally got it.”

Federer is the No. 2 seed behind Nadal. As everyone knows, Roger has won 20 Grand Slams, far more than anyone else, but none have been this year. He is a constant among the big three of men’s tennis, with Nadal and the revitalized Novak Djokovic.

His strengths are a timely serve and wonderful consistency. Still, the conversation was about comparing the few shots, like the one Saturday, that are special.

“I explained (to ESPN) on court you don’t get the opportunity to hit around the net post very often because you can’t train for them,” he said. “On practice courts, the net is farther out. You will be running into a fence, and you will hit it into the net.

“But I have hit a few throughout my career, and they are always fun. You realize you have the option. I can just shove it down the line. That’s what happened today.”

So rare, so remarkable.

9:38PM

Tennis Open is anything but a nightmare

By Art Spander

NEW YORK — Headline on the New York Post web site: “US Open’s week 1 has been a nightmare.” That’s the trouble with those tabloids, always understating the situation.

Nightmares are for Elm Street, not tennis tournaments. Nobody’s awakened screaming here. Just confused. Or angry. Or sweating. Or bewildered.

In other words, it’s a normal Open. The weather is oppressive, the players obsessive and the fans impressive. Hey, it was after 1 a.m. on Thursday, a qualifier, Karolina Muchova was beating Garbine Muguruza and there were people in the stands.

But this is the city that never sleeps, the place, we’re told, that if you can make it here you can make it anywhere. Whether that includes beleaguered tennis umpire Mohamed Lahyani is problematical, although he was back in the chair Friday on Court 13 to officiate a men’s doubles match.

The problem was that Lahyani got out of his chair Thursday and gave what appeared to be a pep talk to the slightly imbalanced Nick Kyrgios because Kyrgios seemingly was not trying in his match against Pierre-Hugues Herbert. The USTA announced on Friday that the well-respected Lahyani wouldn’t be suspended.

Think of an NFL referee giving advice to Tom Brady in the second quarter of the Super Bowl. But this is tennis, where women change shirts on court and players are allowed “bathroom breaks.”

For a while Friday, it appeared Rafael Nadal, the defending men’s champion, needed a break of a different sort. He lost the first set and was two games down in the second to Karen Khachanov of Russia. But there was no nightmare for Nadal, or for tournament sponsors who wouldn’t want to lose a top name in the first week.

This Open began with temperatures in the mid-90s, which brought grumbling — as we’ve heard forever, everybody complains about the weather but nobody does anything about it — and then evolved into a question of the competency of an official.

Among all this, Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic kept winning, Muguruza and Caroline Wozniacki lost and the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, were destined to play Friday night in a third-round match they didn’t want but the public certainly did. The American men, other than John Isner, couldn’t make it out of the first week, Sam Querrey inexplicably losing in the first round, Tennys Sandgren, Francis Tiafoe and Steve Johnson losing on Thursday, and Taylor Fritz losing on Friday in the third.

Fritz is known as the e-sports champion of the locker room, which is not exactly the champion of the court, but you can’t have everything,

What the U.S. Open, the final Grand Slam event of every year, has is its own personality. Some players dislike the atmosphere. Others say they enjoy the carnival approach, the distractions and no less the attention gained in competing where every day and night there are more than 50,000 spectators.

Federer, winner of 20 Slams including five Opens, says he embraces the Open, where the fans embrace him. He likes playing at night in 23,000-seat Ashe Stadium when the temperature drops and a tennis tournament becomes another off-Broadway hit in New York.

Nightrmare? For Roger, the Open is dream.

2:03PM

Federer on his loss: ‘I’m not sure what happened’

By Art Spander

WIMBLEDON, England — He sounded as bewildered as the rest of us. Sure, it’s happened before, a favorite squandering a lead, breaking bad — and that’s the key phrase here — when it’s all going so good, Arnold Palmer throwing away a seven-shot lead in a U.S. Open, the Falcons falling apart after going in front by 25 points in Super Bowl LI.

But not Roger Federer. Not the acknowledged greatest tennis player ever. Not at Wimbledon, where he had won the men’s singles seven times. Not against Kevin Anderson, whom he’d beaten the four times they’d ever met.

There was Roger on Wednesday, coasting, breezing, playing with the grace and skill we — and he — would expect, even a month before his 37th birthday.

Two sets ahead, a lead in the third, one point from his fifth straight semifinals, from his 12th in 15 Wimbledons overall. And then?

“After that,” he would confess, “I’m not sure what happened.”

On the scoreboard, what happened was Anderson, the big guy (6-foot-8) from South Africa (he lives in Florida and has applied for U.S. citizenship), stunned Federer, 2-6, 6-7, 7-5, 6-4, 13-11.

A mini-marathon, 4 hours, 14 minutes. A maxi-surprise.

“I’m up two sets to one,” said a chastened Federer. “It’s all good, so... At that point, I wasn’t thinking of losing.”

But he lost. He lost for only the second time in a Wimbledon match after winning the first two sets (Jo-Wilfred Tsonga beat him 3-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4). He lost after having his serve broken for the first time at Wimbledon since last year’s semi against Tomas Berdych, 85 games.

“I was very happy that I got off to the right start,” said Federer, “as I was able to take control of the game.”

It’s the end that counts in sports. It’s how you finish. And Anderson, who had 28 service aces — 11 in the fifth set, which lasted for an hour and a half — was able to finish off Federer.

“I think I had my chances,” said Federer, “so it’s disappointing. No doubt about it. I just don’t know exactly how I couldn’t create more opportunities once the third set came around. He was consistent. He was solid. Credit to him for hanging around that long.”

Anderson, who through the second set had dropped all 10 sets he’d ever played against the Swiss master starting in 2013, will take that credit and take his spot in the semis against an American, John Isner, who beat the Canadian Milos Raonic.

“It felt great to get that match.” said Anderson. ”I mean, the toughest thing players face when playing somebody like Roger in this setting is giving yourself a chance.”

Even if nobody else gave him a chance.

“Again,” said Anderson, who spent a year at the University of Illinois, “I really hope it’s an example of sticking to your dreams.”

More importantly, sticking to your plan. A day earlier, he told a writer from Metro, the free London paper, “I feel like a lot of aspects of my game can give him a lot of trouble. I’m a big player, big serve. I’m going to have to really take it to him.”

In truth, Anderson took it from Federer, took away the opportunity to add a 20th Grand Slam title to his record.

“That has nothing to do with my opponent,” Federer would contend, when of course it did have a great deal to do with his opponent. Anderson didn’t melt under the Federer spell — “Roger, Roger” was the scream at Centre Court. Anderson was resolute.

“It was just one of those days where you hope to get by,” said Federer. “Somehow, I almost could have.”

Almost, that’s the word so often used by the people who play Federer. They had him. Then they didn’t have him. Then he hit the great passing shot, the great serve.

“I didn’t feel mental fatigue,” said Federer. “Now I feel horribly fatigued. It’s just awful. But that’s how it goes.”

It’s legitimate to wonder where Federer will go. He said he’ll return to Wimbledon, but it won’t be as defending champion, as the virtually unbeatable star.

“Today,” said Federer, “I had moments where I was great. I felt like I was reading his serve, other moments where I don’t know where the hell I was moving.”

He knows now. He was moving out of Wimbledon.

2:14PM

In England, a curse ending, a tennis tournament continuing

By Art Spander

WIMBLEDON, England — You’ve heard the line. England and America are two counties separated by a common language. It was attributed to George Bernard Shaw, who apparently never said it the way Mark Twain never said the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.

There are, certainly, items other than words that make us realize the U.S. and U.K. (right, that’s more than just England) are dissimilar. Start with football. Same name, very different game, although similar obsession.

Yes, we’re smack in the middle of the oldest, most important tennis tournament on the planet, the All England Lawn Championships, better known as Wimbledon. But also we’re figuratively smack in almost-the-middle-but-closer-to-the-end of the World Cup, the quarterfinals.

And England still is playing. As if anybody able to read the common language that separates the two countries is not well aware.

England won a penalty shootout over Colombia, 4-3, Tuesday night to advance after the teams tied, 1-1, through regulation and two overtimes. People literally were dancing in the streets when the game ended, or at least in one street, Lillie Road in southwest London, not far from Wimbledon.

Trying to avoid the game would have been like trying to avoid the Super Bowl on that first Sunday in February.

“I watched the game,” said Sam Querrey after his 7-6, 6-3, 6-3 second-round victory (in tennis, not soccer). “I was at the house that we’re staying at. Kind of tucked back. I’m sure if we were a little closer to the village, we would have heard. I saw some people in videos going crazy.”

Querrey, a southern Californian, stayed cool after his win, as did fellow Americans Serena and Venus Williams and Madison Keys after they won, as contrasted to the national population following the Cup triumph.

The Curse had been lifted. Or kicked away.

We knew the Curse of the Bambino, the Curse of the Billy Goat. We knew the Curse of Candlestick, the San Francisco Giants never winning a title there. We knew the Wimbledon Curse, no British male having won men’s singles for 77 years until Andy Murray in 2013.

But only England knew the Curse of the Penalty Shootout.

That having a shootout to decide games in what some insist is the most important of any sporting event is nonsense, like shooting free throws to decide an NBA playoff game or holding a home run contest to decide the World Series. But that’s the way it’s always been done.

And, until Tuesday night, always the way that proved fatal for England. Six times previously, a World Cup game involving England had gone to a shootout, a kick-off if you will. Six times previously, England lost. Not this time.

“It’s the headline we have waited a lifetime to write,” headlined the tabloid Sun on the back page, “ENGLAND WIN ON PENALTIES.”

“Eric and Pick End Curse.” That’s Eric Dier with the deciding goal and Jordan Pickford, the England goalie whose diving left-handed save kept out what would have been a final Colombia score.

They never forget in England, where in the 1986 Cup at Mexico City they were beaten, 2-1, by Argentina in a quarterfinal on a disputed goal by Diego Maradona, who was accused of punching the ball in with his hand and countered with the explanation, “It was the hand of God.”

What delight then the creator of the headline under the photo of Jordan Pickford’s save must have taken in writing, “THE HAND OF JORD.”

Federer, the defending champ at Wimbledon was less enthralled with the England soccer win. His heart and attention were with his home country, Switzerland, which was kept from the quarters when it was shut out by Sweden, 1-0.

“It’s an opportunity missed,” agreed Federer, who on the courts rarely misses any opportunity. “In the end I thought (Sweden) were maybe a little bit better. It’s not sour. I think we deserved what we got.”

An English journalist then said to Federer, “Which team will you be rooting for now? Surely there’s only one answer to that.”

Federer hesitated, smiled and said, “Is there?’’

We’ll never know.