New York :Who would have guessed that of the top four seeds at Wimbledon, only the six-time champion Roger Federer will miss the semifinals?
On Wednesday, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal bumped up against two of the heaviest-hitting big men in tennis. Federer drew the tall and talented Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic, while Nadal faced the giant, giant-killing Swede, Robin Soderling.
Both went four sets, but only Nadal prevailed, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-1. Federer fell, 4-6, 6-3, 1-6, 4-6, his second straight quarterfinal loss in a Grand Slam tournament. It will be the first time Federer has not been a finalist at Wimbledon since he first won the tournament in 2003.
The outcomes of these two quarterfinal matches say much about the career trajectories of the longtime rivals Federer and Nadal. While Federer, almost 29, is working hard to maintain his extraordinary level of play in the later stages of his career, younger stars like Nadal, who just turned 24, are constantly improving, turning weaknesses into strengths.
Despite citing back and leg problems, Federer over all played a strong match. He hit 14 aces to Berdych's 12, with an impressive 44 winners and only 18 unforced errors.
Berdych, like Soderling in the quarterfinals of the French Open, overpowered Federer with booming serves, including some body blows that jammed Federer, and sweeping groundstrokes off both wings that opened up Federer's weaker backhand side. On important points, Berdych let loose on heavy inside-out forehands that forced defensive backhand slices from Federer or zipped through the grass for outright winners.
Nadal had less trouble handling Soderling's offensive pressure. The top-ranked player in the world, seeded No. 2 in London, Nadal has been improving his already muscular game, adding pace to his serve -- his fastest was 126 m.p.h. -- and sometimes flattening out his own strokes to keep Soderling from dictating points.
"You know when you play against these kind of players, like Soderling, like Berdych, they have a very good serve and very powerful shots from the baseline," Nadal told reporters after the match. "It's very difficult sometimes to stop these player, no?"
Berdych, like Soderling, has had the talent for years. But only recently have both players gained the confidence, consistency and discipline to take full advantage.
Soderling, who beat Federer in the quarterfinals of the French Open only to lose to Nadal in the finals, and Berdych, who also bested Federer at the Sony Ericsson Open this spring, are part of a new class of rangy, athletic big-hitters, a class that is just coming into its own. Juan Martin del Potro, winner of last year's United States Open, is another leading member of this group.
Soderling is just an inch shorter than Berdych's wiry 6 foot 5 inch frame. Both drive the ball with thundering two-handed backhands, but primarily bludgeon opponents with their forehands. Both routinely smack serves that exceed 130 miles an hour.
They share a similarly aggressive style of play, but their talents are not identical. Berdych moves with greater agility while Soderling takes bigger risks with bigger strokes. Del Potro is an inch taller than Berdych and moves the slowest of the three, but has the biggest forehand.
No one should write off Federer just yet. He is still a favorite to win in Flushing Meadows this fall, especially with del Potro out of competition following wrist surgery. But Federer is not going to be No. 1 again anytime soon. With his ranking set to fall to No. 3 next week, perhaps the larger question is, how much longer can he stay there?