Though Roger Federer is unlikely to be aware of my existence, he would not be happy to note that my first sighting of his amazing talent ended in misery for me, as for him.
Federer's game has been in a strange sort of instability over the last one year. He is yet to win a Grand Slam in 2008, he's lost his Wimbledon crown to a younger, stronger man. Now he's lost another -- and perhaps last -- shot at an Olympics gold.
Last year's US Open defeat to Novak Djokovic disproved the entirely believable rumour that he was a god. This year has been miserable -- player after player is proving that the man who was considered a god is very much a mortal.
Federer's strength had been his ability to deal his blows fast and slow; the racquet in his hand was an instrument that could cloak his game in mysterious mutability that left his opponent rooted to the ground.
He could alter the pace of his strokes with a sleight that defied detection. He could alter the angles of his groundstrokes with late contact and a swift flick of his racquet.
Well, he still can do it -- he does it all the time. The trouble is that something seems to have gone terrible wrong with the mechanics of his game -- he is making too many unforced errors. He is missing the lines by embarrassingly large margins, he's hitting the net too frequently, he's double-faulting too often, and in critical situations.
To be fair, Federer's standards were impossibly high -- we were perhaps spoiled by the visual feast he's been serving for several years. He always played the game on the razor's edge -- he would swivel on his toes, leap high and effortlessly hit the lines, drawing gasps from the watchers. Those sort of insanely high standards of tennis are not possible to maintain.
Those lustrous moments of pure genius are becoming more and more difficult to produce. When he does manage it, he seems to be doing it with perhaps just muscle-memory. Or perhaps he's getting the mechanics of his body and his racquet right on fewer occasions.
But then, Federer has dwelt -- and still dwells -- among the gods, and it's beyond humans to fathom his game. Probably he himself is unable form the correct diagnosis of his ills, or perhaps is unable to nurse his game to health. Perhaps, over time, he'll tune his game and return to his best.
On the 14th night, the fact that James Blake was playing out of his skin was obscured by the fact that Federer was making too many mistakes. The Centre Court crowd had come to watch one man win. As Federer fell behind, the crowd tried to spur him on with its support. Blake's mistakes were cheered, Federer's were met with groans.
Federer is -- he must be! -- on the decline: surely, tennis can't be played better than he has played over the last few years!