After eight years holding one or more major titles at a time, Roger Federer is a king without a scepter.
On Thursday, Federer, 29, lost his Australian Open semifinal to Novak Djokovic, who coaxed 44 unforced errors out of Federer during three battering-ram sets. The loss came a day after Federer’s partner in dominating the past decade, 24-year-old Rafael Nadal, bowed out of his Aussie quarterfinal in a straight-set loss of his own. Coming Sunday: only the second major final without either Federer or Nadal since 2005.
Djokovic won comprehensively. With blunt power and sweeping defense, he caused the match-tough Federer, winner of his past two events in London and Qatar, to wilt within each set of a 7-6, 7-5, 6-4 victory.
By following up his five-set U.S. Open semifinal ouster of Federer last fall, Djokovic, 23, showed he is no longer intimidated by Federer’s flash and skill in the way that he was in his first major final, a straight-set U.S. Open loss to Federer in 2007. That represented Federer’s 12th of 16 major titles, and it came at a time when talk was not just of Federer’s greatness, but his invincibility.
Federer’s quality has dipped only a little, but enough to put him on the outside of a fourth straight major final. And the top-ranked Nadal is undergoing what should be only a brief bout with injury. But their long-suppressed rivals appear less willing to accept diminished expectations — and more capable of reversing them than ever.
The sport’s balance of power shift is slight but inexorable, with results that are traumatic for some and dramatic for all.
Max J. Dickstein (mdickstein[at]am-ny[dot].com, or @amNYsports on Twitter) is amNewYork's sports editor.