Tuesday night, Roger Federer was playing the No. 457-ranked player in the world. By the end of the second set of a 6-2, 6-4 win, he was giving away points simply to get the match finished.
The Swiss player's strategy was clear: He had broken his opponent's serve, he only had to hold serve himself through the rest of the set and he would win without expending too much energy. It worked. For a night.
Tonight, he lost to American James Blake in what should have been a surprise to no one. Much might be made of his exit from the Olympic tournament. He is an easy target now. But this loss against a fitter, faster player is less an indictment of his form than a confirmation that he is not – and never was – tennis’ iron man.
The Olympic tournament is already scheduled tightly to get it out of the way as soon as possible before the US Open begins on Aug. 25. Players are playing every day. Throw in doubles and rain delays, and some are now playing twice a day – as was Federer.
Wednesday, Federer won two matches, one singles and one doubles. Federer almost never plays doubles. Though he is proficient, Federer playing doubles is a bit like Michael Jordan playing outfield for the Birmingham Barons – it is not somewhere he was ever meant to be.
Yet for love of country, there he is. Tonight, little more than an hour after his singles loss to Blake, Federer was out on the court again to play doubles with Stanislas Wawrinka – sacrificing himself for Switzerland against two doubles specialists from India.
Four games into the match there was another rain delay. Federer sat beneath an umbrella – waiting for the rain to stop – at 1:15 a.m.
If he had beaten Blake, he would have had to play again the following day at 4 p.m. in the singles semifinals.
The Olympics offer an advantage to the fittest players or the freshest players. Federer was never at the top of this list, despite his evident desire to honor his country.
There is no question that Federer is in eclipse at the moment, but these Games are evidence of something other than a general decline.
His heart is in the right place, even if his legs are not.