Is it the end for Roger Federer? It does not need to be. He might be enduring his worst season for over a decade, losing to players he would once have crushed without a second thought. But he has reinvented himself before, and having only recently turned 32, he is capable of doing it again.
Admittedly, Federer's 7-6, 6-3, 6-4 defeat to Tommy Robredo on Monday night was alarming in its wastefulness. This was the first straight-sets defeat he had suffered in a grand slam since 2002, and it was not as if he was blown off the court by a virtuoso performance. As he said afterwards, "I feel like I beat myself - I kind of self-destructed".
Yet this was more than a story of a creaky old-timer who is half a step too late on the ball. Federer was in position to hit a clean winner in almost every point. He did, in fact, strike no fewer than 45 of them in the match. But he also misfired with alarming regularity, particularly at the most important moments. He generated 16 break points, yet converted only two of them. The malaise, then, was less physical than mental.
Federer has not won enough matches this year. He has not banked enough confidence to sustain him through a bare-knuckled brawl against a renowned hard man like Robredo. It was a bad night to be doubting yourself. The humidity in New York touched 80% so even the famously icy-veined Federer was soon slick with sweat. The court was not the one he had expected to play on, because of a late reshuffle forced by showers earlier in the day.
And in the back of his mind, he must have been wondering how much he really wanted to face Rafael Nadal, his toughest opponent, at a time when his best form was escaping him. You get the sense that Federer does not quite know where to look for the old magic - perhaps because he never knew quite where it came from in the first place.
When he speaks about his career, he often sounds surprised by his own eminence, as if the 302 weeks he spent at the top of the rankings were one long out-of-body experience. Where Nadal's game runs on the heavy-duty ordnance of his explosive forehand, Federer has always been something more than a muscle machine. There is a touch of divine inspiration about his best points, a phenomenon best expressed in the author David Foster Wallace's essay "Federer as religious experience".
Wallace focused on a shot that Federer played against Andre Agassi in the 2005 US Open final - a forehand winner played while "moving backwards, with no set-up time and none of his weight behind the shot, like something out of The Matrix".
Even against Robredo, we saw one moment that caused spectators to burst out laughing, such was Federer's audacity as he faked a drop shot and then slid the ball coolly down the line. It was the bread-and-butter stuff that eluded him. And this is fixable. As Federer said: "I've definitely got to go back to work and come back stronger. My problem is there in training, not actually playing matches right now."
Federer has a gap in his schedule coming up, as he is not playing another ATP tournament until Shanghai in the second week in October. Indeed, he may only have two other events - the other two being Basle and Paris - to secure the points he needs to qualify for the end-of-year ATP World Tour Finals. But the real work, one suspects, will come in the off season. Federer experimented with a larger racket head in the weeks after Wimbledon, only to revert to what he knew for the American hard-court swing.
Yet the best time to think about structural changes is at the end of the year. He might perhaps consider his coaching arrangements. While Paul Annacone is respected for his tactical input, he is a low-key character when a more energetic presence might be useful. And then there is the cranky back that has afflicted him all summer. Coming off his last winter's break, Federer was a genuine contender at the Australian Open, beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and taking Murray to five-sets in the semi-final.
As the season has gone on, the grind of the tour has exhausted his body and sapped his spirit, culminating in his early exits both here and at Wimbledon. But he is not ready to give up, and clearly still has more tennis left in him. Perhaps not an 18th grand slam title, but at least another few moments of god-like genius. Don't give up the faith just yet.