-- It was the situation that every great player faces at least a few times in a career, and one he utterly dreads. It's the malicious equation concocted by perverse tennis gods to punish hubris, or perhaps merely to inject a little chaos into the game. You play a journeyman you've beaten 10 consecutive times, a guy who has won just one set in those 10 matches, a guy named, say, Andreas Seppi.
But suddenly, unexpectedly, Seppi is you. And, just as shockingly, you are him. The roles you customarily play are reversed. And try as you might, you can't flip the equation any more than yanking your hands in opposite directions gets you out of Chinese handcuffs.
Roger Federer, who hadn't lost before the semifinals of the Australian Open for 11 years running, found himself in just that position in Melbourne on Friday. Try as he might, he was unable to reverse a tide of costly errors and poor decisions in time to head Seppi and convince him that this was not his lucky day. Seppi won the third-round match in 2 hours, 57 minutes, 6-4, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 7-6 (5).
Fittingly, the final shot was an improbable forehand pass that Seppi hit in response to a Federer approach that looked like a sure winner. Both men froze as Seppi swiped desperately at the ball, and both watched in disbelief as it traveled up the line and curled right into the corner like a cat settling in for an afternoon nap.
Then Rod Laver Arena erupted, as what had started out as a routine entertainment suddenly become a piece of tennis history. And for once, Federer was on the wrong side of it.
It didn't really have to be that way. Federer had opportunities to shape the narrative before it got out of hand for him, but that too is often part of the equation.
Seppi, No. 46 in the ATP world rankings, is an intriguing case; one of those players who proves that there are dozens of ways to succeed in this game while appearing to have nothing to distinguish you from the masses laboring in the game's bush leagues. He's a lanky, lean and muscular 6-foot-3, little of it put to hard labor. Seppi creates the impression that he's a small man trapped in a big man's body. His serve is the yellow school bus of ATP serves; his first offering traveled Friday at an average of 114 mph. But his delivery is so quick that it looks as if he's quick-serving his opponent. That certainly makes the return a more challenging proposition. Seppi has solid groundstrokes and an excellent service return, but his best asset is his movement. He's rangy and extremely nimble for a man of his size.
However, Seppi was 1-54 against top-10 players before this match. The question that will be left hanging isn't "How did he pull this off?" but "How come he can't do this kind of thing more often?"
Seppi was dialed in from the start, while Federer launched a running dialogue between glorious winners and cringe-worthy unforced errors that would not end until the last ball was hit (he ended up with 57 winners, and 55 unforced errors -- most of them forehands). If they kept statistics on shanked balls, Federer might have established a personal record.
The first eight games went by routinely, but Federer collapsed in the ninth; he fell behind love-40 and was immediately broken when he overcooked an inside-out forehand. Seppi 5-4, with serve to come. There was no reason for Federer to panic; after all, the No. 2 seed had dropped the first set in his previous match as well. That opponent was, like Seppi, an Italian. And Federer was working with a 22-0 record against all comers from that nation.
Predictably, Seppi's knees began to buckle when he served for the set. Two egregious errors and a double fault presented Federer with a pair of break-back points. But the Swiss botched a forehand return and shanked a rally forehand to let Seppi off the hook. Another forehand error cost him a third break point, after which Seppi slammed the door.
In the second set, Seppi broke Federer twice only to see Federer break right back. The set drifted into a tiebreaker in which Federer scored an early mini-break that he converted to a 4-1 lead. But Seppi held fast and eventually recouped the mini-break with an aggressive backhand return that Federer drove into the net. That left Seppi serving at 4-5, and he reeled off three points with, in succession, a forehand volley winner, a blazing cross-court forehand pass and another unanswered volley.
Federer mounted an offensive that earned him the third set, but he had carelessly dug himself a hole too big to climb out of. Neither man broke serve in the final set, and Federer's inability to hang onto the advantage of a mini-break on three different occasions was his undoing in the tiebreaker. He led 5-4 but lost both his subsequent serves and Seppi won the next, final point.
"I just tried to enjoy myself and playing on the center court," Seppi sheepishly admitted in his brief on-court interview. "I don't get to do this very often."
For most of the week, Federer had been preaching the mantra that age doesn't matter. On one occasion he was asked whether his newfound taste for ending points quickly had anything to do with the fact that he's 33. His response was touching. "Nothing at all," Federer said. "And I hope you believe me and I hope you understand."
Still, in his post-match analysis, commentator John McEnroe turned to altruism: As players turn 30 and older they simply have bad days more often. It becomes tougher and tougher for them to sustain the fierce focus that once infused each and every day with urgency.
Federer has been defiant of mortality; just days ago he told reporters: "I feel fine. I don't feel any different to let's say four years ago. I really don't. You maybe pay attention a bit more and listen to the signs of your body a bit more. By now I know my body even better."
Was it hubris? Only those perverse tennis gods know for sure.