Roger Federer lost a tennis match for the first time this year. The fact is less shocking than the way that defeat unspooled.
Federer, the 35-year-old icon, lit up the sports world a month ago when he won the Australian Open. It was his record 18th Grand Slam title and his first tournament of any kind since Wimbledon last year.
But Wednesday night in Dubai, Federer was unable to convert two second-set match points. He was ultimately beaten by the No. 116-ranked player in the world, qualifier Evgeny Donskoy, 3-6, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (5).
This was just the third time since 2007 that Federer has lost to a qualifier. In 2013, he fell to Federico Delbonis at Hamburg. Albert Ramos toppled Federer in Shanghai in 2015.
Federer will be the first to say this loss does not represent the end of the world, just the end of his hopes of winning a Dubai desert shootout for the eighth time. It takes no great leap of imagination to visualize Federer winning one of the three match points he held. Let's also remember that this ATP 500, as well as the ATP 500 in Acapulco, Mexico, is mainly a way to limber up and work out the kinks before the two big North American Masters 1000 events of the coming weeks.
If anything, Federer's loss is another signal that the constituents of tennis's re-energized Big Four might have some heavy lifting to do before they begin planning and plotting to take one another down. Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, the two junior member (agewise) were unable to penetrate deep in Australia despite being seeded Nos. 1 and 2, respectively. Each met his own version of Donskoy long before the second week in Melbourne began.
Federer's loss spoiled what had been an otherwise rousing start to Phase II of the tennis year for the Big Four. Each of them won his first match (Federer and Murray in Dubai or top seed Djokovic and No. 6 Rafael Nadal in Acapulco). And as much as they've staged a reunion of the titans, the four men are in significantly different situations. And each is vulnerable in a different way.
Top-ranked Murray, never one to threaten or bluster, is tasked with the simple mission of hanging on to that hard-earned honor. He knows just how difficult a task that will be. His comments to the media as he returned to the fray at Dubai prepared him for a soft landing.
"I don't need to stay as the world No. 1," Murray said. "Nothing bad happens if I go to world No. 2. My life is OK; no one dies. It's all good, but I do want to try and stay there."
Psychologically, Murray is playing defense. Djokovic seems to have wakened to the need to play offense.
Djokovic accepted a wild card into Acapulco at the last minute. Maybe it was because the promoters offered him too much appearance money to refuse. But maybe Djokovic blinked and decided to go proactive, perceiving a chance to halt Nadal's newly gained momentum before it's too late.
Is it a sign of hubris that Djokovic, who lives in Monte Carlo, didn't arrive in Acapulco until Sunday? He left himself barely two days to acclimate to a radically different, nearly tropical environment and a seven-hour time change. It might be a factor later this week, and it raises questions about his motivation. The contrast to Nadal couldn't be more pronounced.
"It's the best draw ever for Acapulco," Nadal told reporters early before the start of Acapulco. "I arrived to Mexico early in order not to suffer the time zone when I will go in Indian Wells."
Nadal is surging out of the slump he slipped into shortly after he won his last major in Paris in 2014 (with that last win against Djokovic). But because Nadal was denied that elusive 15th major title by Federer in Australia, he has a load of motivational fuel.
Federer appeared to be in the most comfortable position among all four rivals as the week began. He's added to his major title record. He was inconvenienced by a slight leg injury in Melbourne but perhaps more pained by the criticism he took for taking those medical timeouts late in the final. Federer says he's fine now, and in Dubai he showed plenty of that vintage flash and flair, at least in his opening match.
"Mentally I'm super fresh again," Federer told Sport360 before the tournament began. "I refueled the energy tank, on the mental side, being home, spending time with the family, being in the winter in the mountains in Switzerland. It was beautiful to be home in my own house and just enjoy that part."
The idea of a reinvigorated Federer swinging away on hard courts without a care in the world has to be a scary one for anyone, including his three main rivals. But Donskoy reminded us that even a carefree Federer isn't immune to setbacks.