Roger Federer's brilliance had made us think his reign as the game's greatest player would stretch long into the future but the world No 1 admitted here yesterday that his unprecedented run of success had "created a monster".
Federer's record sequence of 10 consecutive appearances in Grand Slam finals came to an end with a crushing defeat by the Serb Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals of the Australian Open. Paying the price for his lack of preparation, the world No 1 lost in straight sets in a Grand Slam tournament for the first time for four years as Djokovic won 7-5, 6-3, 7-6.
"I've created a monster, so I know I always need to win every tournament," a subdued Federer said after failing to add to his tally of 12 Grand Slam titles. "Winning every other week means that when I just lose a set people say I'm playing bad. It's my own mistake, I guess. It's not easy coming out every week trying to win. You'll always run into fellow top 10 players or other guys on a streak who surprise you. That's the difficulty about tennis. I've had this for a long, long time. I've had to deal with all sorts of different streaks."
If the tennis landscape has changed in the last two days – tomorrow's match between Djokovic and the unseeded Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will be the first Grand Slam final without Federer or Rafael Nadal since Marat Safin won here three years ago – the storm clouds have been developing on the champion's horizon for some time now.
Nadal, who so nearly prevented Federer from equalling Bjorn Borg's record of five consecutive Wimbledon titles last summer, has been steadily closing in on the Swiss over the last year, while Djokovic's emergence has established a triumvirate at the top of the game.
Federer was fortunate to win the US Open final in straight sets four months ago – Djokovic wasted seven set points in the first two sets – and his victory in the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup was only partial compensation for defeats to David Nalbandian in two successive Masters Series tournaments in the autumn.
Twelve months ago Federer won the Australian Open with minimal match preparation, having played only in the pre-tournament exhibition event at Kooyong, and his aim of repeating that formula this year was wrecked when he went down with a stomach ailment. At times over the last fortnight he has looked as good as ever, but the achievement of Janko Tipsarevic, Djokovic's fellow countryman, in taking the defending champion to five sets a week ago indicated that all was not well.
"Considering my illness, I'm sort of happy with the result here," Federer admitted. "It's the first time I've been ill before a Grand Slam. It might have had an effect on my movement. I definitely didn't feel as quick as I have at other times. I practised really hard. I can't practise much harder in the off-season. I did everything the right way. Maybe I did pay the price for being a little bit ill."
While it took a hugely impressive performance by Djokovic to bring down the champion, Federer was way below his best. Normally the quickest of players around the court, he was often caught unprepared by the power of Djokovic's shots. Federer's forehand, the best stroke in tennis, misfired with alarming regularity, and he rarely played with his usual aggression.
"There's no doubt I've played better," he said. "In the last few matches I've not been really serving the way I wanted to and I didn't think I was moving that great. I definitely wasn't as good on the defensive as I usually am. I couldn't come up with the passing shot when I needed to."
Federer's tentative play on the big points was summed up when Djokovic made his first break of serve in the second set. On break point Federer created a winning position, but he failed to put away what should have been a routine volley and was punished when Djokovic chased the ball down and struck a fine winning passing shot.
Djokovic's serve has not been his greatest weapon in the past, but here it repeatedly got him out of trouble. Concentrating his attack on Federer's backhand, the Serb hit 13 aces and put 68 per cent of his first serves in court. If Federer lost the first set, Djokovic won the next two, driving home his advantage by going for his shots whenever the opportunity arose.
Federer, playing in his 15th consecutive Grand Slam semi-final, led 5-3 in the first set but then lost nine out of the next 10 games as his errors multiplied. A mini-recovery was ended when Djokovic served for the second set at 5-3. Opponents are sometimes put off by the Serb's tendency to take his time between points – he can bounce the ball 20 times or more before serving – and he was given a code violation at deuce. He responded with a forehand winner and an ace, his subsequent glare at the umpire speaking volumes for his steely mentality.
At 5-6 in the third set Djokovic saved set points with two more big serves and he came from behind to win the tie-break 7-5. The last three points typified the match as Djokovic hit two service winners and Federer put a forehand into the net. "In the second set he started unloading," Federer said. "That's not usually what he does. He can obviously play aggressively, but not on every shot. The way he played, picking up every serve, was fantastic. He made the more important points today and served really well when he had to. He's come through the draw convincingly. He had a tough draw, if I compare it to maybe Rafa's, so he absolutely deserves to be in the final."
Who does Federer tip to win tomorrow? "I don't care really," he replied. Would he be seeking out a television to watch the final? "No, I won't." For the world's best player, winning is still all that matters.