NEW YORK -- Coming into the fourth round of the U.S. Open, Roger Federer had enough good play to almost quiet the talk of his lackluster (by his standards) year so far: He won three matches easily, spending less than five hours on the court. At an impromptu autograph session on Tuesday morning, he seemed relaxed as he signed for dozens of eager fans waiting outside the practice court. But about three points into his match against 19th seed Tommy Robredo, the seventh-ranked Federer seemed anything but on his game, eventually losing in three sets in what seemed like a shocking meltdown.

Coming into the Open, whispers of the end of Federer's career possibly being near have grown (despite his denials and promises that his passion for the game is still high). He has slid in the rankings from No. 1 to No. 7. He seems to be constantly tinkering with his game, hoping to turn what’s been one of his worst seasons in history back upright. And during the three sets where he seemed to be chasing Robredo's shots and unable to get in any sort of rhythm, the talk continued to heat up.

The loss capped a season where Federer has exited the Australian Open and French Open early before a shocking second-round exit to the 116th-ranked player in the Wimbledon in June.

The talk of Federer's career being over, like most major athletes, has gone on and off for the last few years. And it's entirely possible that he will be able to take a few months to heal, get his rhythm back and quiet any talk when he resumes play.

At the press conference afterwards, Federer detailed to reporters his plan for improving what’s been a rough couple of months. And it would be silly to write him off yet. He's won 17 majors, the rain on Monday made for a strange and humid day at the US Open, and everyone has bad nights. “Confidence does all these things,” he said, after acknowledging he missed “so many opportunities” during the match. “[It] takes care of all the things you don’t usually think about. I think its been a difficult last three months my consistency is just not quite there yet on a daily basis, on a set by set point by point maybe that’s something that’s been difficult for me so maybe that was one of the reasons I lost there.”

Roberdo, who was 0-10 against Federer until Monday’s win, was asked by an announcer after the match what was so different about this time.

The Spaniard, grinning from ear to ear, answered: “I won.”

But for the fans who were watching, it was hard to wonder if it wasn’t something bigger than that.