Roger Federer's Slow Mental Decline

09/12/2011 09:15 am ET | Updated Nov 12, 2011

As anyone who has played tennis competitively knows, it's among the most mentally taxing sports ever devised by humankind. Yes, technically you're dueling with an adversary across the net -- but oftentimes the real battle is raging between warring circuits inside your addled brain. One bad error, one chink in your self-confidence, one moment of dreaded "overthinking" -- and all of a sudden the finely tuned motions that seemed so natural just a moment ago seem foreign, impossible. You've been sucked out of the mysterious "zone" in which everything came naturally. Suddenly, you're in analysis mode, and now hitting a routine forehand has become an insurmountable challenge.

If you watch professional tennis, you also know that the game's very best players are just as vulnerable to the self-confidence trap than anyone on your local high-school team. That truth was on full display in Saturday's thrilling U.S. Open men's semifinal between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.

During the first two sets, Federer looked like he had stepped into a time machine and set the dial back to 2006, back when he stood, unrivaled, atop the tennis landscape. His footwork was nimble. His one-handed backhand exploded crisply off his racket. He played with the grace and flair that tennis aesthetes have so fetishized over the last decade, and which nobody on tour can come close to matching. (Nadal and Djokovic are both great players, but not great stylists.) Federer played the aggressor to Djokovic -- no easy feat, given that the Serb has put together one of the greatest years in tennis history (currently 60-2 with two Grand Slam titles to his name).

And then? Well, Djokovic started to believe in himself, and Federer started to doubt that he could really pull this thing off. Is it really that simple? Not exactly -- Djokovic is the best player in the world right now, so obviously he had something to do with the turnaround -- but it's not that far off, either. In no other sport, save perhaps golf, can you see a player's state of mind so clearly manifest itself on the field of play. Djokovic took sets three and four rather easily, and in the latter stretches of the fourth, Federer's footwork (always a good barometer for the quality of his game) so diminished from what it had been just minutes earlier that it looked like had accidentally set the time machine to 2016.

In the fifth set: more seesawing, more drama. Federer somewhat improbably picked up the pace again, until he led 5-3 and appeared on the brink of a hard-fought victory. But then, down two match points, seemingly on the brink of elimination, Djokovic first revved up the crowd (the action of a man with confidence to spare), then hit a ripping forehand winner -- an incredibly self-assured piece of shotmaking. After that, Federer simply wasn't the same, and Djokovic raised his game to a new level. A few minutes later, it was all over, in a scene stunningly similar to last year's semifinal, in which Federer had two match points before Djokovic roared back. Only a year ago, seeing Federer blow a lead like that was still novel. Now, it's become uncomfortably close to routine.

Before this summer, Federer was an astonishing 182-0 after leading two sets to love. That streak was broken in the Wimbledon quarterfinals by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a talented Frenchman who, nonetheless, has no business beating a 16-time Grand Slam winner. (Federer exacted revenge against Tsonga in the Open quarterfinals, dispatching him in three easy sets.) Before now, only one player, Rafael Nadal, could make Federer look discombobulated. (That's a story for another time.) Now, others in the top 10 can do it as well. By 2012, maybe the dregs of any given Grand Slam draw will have a shot, too.

In the early stages of the Djokovic match and, in fact, throughout his impressive tournament, we'd seen that that Federer is still perfectly capable of at least approximating his near-flawless play of old. But Roger Federer is now 30 years old, a grizzled veteran by tennis standards. Perhaps his age, and the physical toll tennis has taken on him has, ever so slightly, given him less of the killer instinct he once possess in droves. It's only natural, and yet it's hard to watch to watch a great champion ever so perceptibly lose his mojo.

Whether Federer can regain the power he once held over every other player on the tour (sans Nadal) remains to be seen. His most fervent fans believe that he can make one or two more memorable runs, and lift another grand slam trophy. But the only thing that matters is whether Roger believes. And right now, that's a big question mark.