In the last two years, Roger Federer’s tennis obituary has been written more than once. In fact, the notion of the great one’s eminent demise has crossed this writer’s mind on a few occasions only to be refuted. Since his victory in Melbourne, Federer has hit a speed bump from which he has yet to recover. Thus, rumors again are rampid as to the Swiss genius being put out to pasture. Unequivocally, the fear factor which Federer previously instilled in his opponents pre-match has waned. Yet, to deduce that his career is at its conclusion is a tad premature.
Tennis followers are accustomed to Federer being a sure thing especially at the majors. With a total of 32 titles from 2004 thru 2007 and double digit trophies three of those years, Federer has been brilliance personified. In 2004, the stellar Swiss was perfect in finals, 11-0. Moreover, three of the fore mentioned years, Federer prevailed at three of the four majors. During that four year span, the ‘Federer Express’ was detained only twenty three times and relinquished at the most matches eight matches in a single season.
Even at his peak, Pete Sampras garnered double figure titles, 10, only one time in 1994 and obtained maximally two majors in a calendar year. Arguably, 2008 was the best year to date for Federer’s archrival, Rafael Nadal. Along with Olympics gold, the Spaniard claimed two majors in that cycle. Considering Federer is almost 29 and Nadal 24 with his best years probably ahead of him, the comparison may be somewhat distorted. Yet, this underscores further the reason that fans expect excellence from Federer.
Before 2008, with the exception of Nadal, Federer vanquished a lot of his competitors in the locker room. It was the 2008 Australian Open semifinals which marked Federer’s transition to the land of mortals. With Novak Djokovic halting Federer at that stage, it signaled to other adversaries that they had a prayer. Although Federer’s languid movement, which could be ascribed to mononucleosis, contributed largely to his defeat. The illness exposed a layer of vulnerability from which Federer had difficulty recovering the remainder of the year. In some respects, this year seems a flashback to 2008 with the express difference that Federer’s counterparts are upstaging him even earlier at the majors; something unseen previously.
Why the transformation? Confidence. While Robin Soderling’s victory over Federer at an exhibition tournament in Abu Dhabi this past February may have been categorized by some as insignificant. In hindsight, it proved not to be trivial. That win cultivated in Soderling belief for their next meeting. A few weeks ago at the French Open, Soderling had his initial triumph over Federer after 13 attempts. Moreover, the encounter was historic as Soderling terminated Federer’s extraordinary streak of major semifinals at 23.
Another example is Tomas Berdych. After eight successive takedowns by Federer, the mentally fragile Berdych bested his nemesis in Miami this year. Then, in the Wimbledon quarterfinals, Berdych went on to replicate that feat. Later, at the post match press conference, Federer revealed that a stiff back and a leg injury which first surfaced in Halle were in part to blame for his failure.
Indeed, there were echoes of Australia 2008 at Wimbledon this year. Federer just seemed a step slower than his opponent. Seldom would one associate the word mediocre with a Federer stroke, but it crept up to mind in watching his backhand. Moreover, the sting had slipped off the forehand side. Consequently, the rest of Federer’s game could not coalesce. In spite of the injuries, considering the result in Paris, the question lingers whether with a fully fit Federer, the outcome would have altered. Following the French Open, Federer’s ranking dropped to number two. After Wimbledon, it dipped to number three, his lowest since November of 2003.
Through most of his career, Federer has been injury free which was partially the secret to his dominance. The last two years, different injuries and illnesses have cropped up to decelerate him. Besides the back and leg, there was a respiratory ailment this February. Outside priorities such as marriage and children are now part of the equation. Additionally, age is suddenly a consideration as Federer turns 29 this month. As such, his body does not have the ability to rebound in the same manner. Moreover, unlike the women’s tour where Serena Williams, who will be Federer’s age in September, has been dominant precisely at the majors, the ATP’s talent pool seems deeper which adds another hurdle.
After a disappointing 2008 by Federer standard, the Swiss genius had a renaissance last year. Federer finally chased down the elusive French Open trophy and culminated 2009 by surpassing Sampras to become the winningest male in the majors in the modern era. Then, Federer started this season by claiming his sixteenth major in Australia. Knowing Federer’s past modus operandi, after Melbourne, visions of 2007, the last time he won three majors, were revived. Of course, recent developments render that eventually unachievable.
At this moment, Federer’s record stands at 31 victories and 9 defeats for the year. Subsequent to an almost two month hiatus, the Swiss’ North American hardcourt swing resumes at the Rogers Cup this month. With a bunch of points at stake, Federer’s career is at a crossroad. Without question, Federer still has the hunger to compete and be the best. In his interview, following the Berdych debacle, he was asked “do you feel you can get back to a position of domination in tennis?” Federer responded: “I do think that. That’s why I’m here”. Great champions are wizards at making themselves relevant and Federer has a proven track record. Therefore, the upcoming U.S. Open will offer Federer the ideal stage to show he has plenty of tennis left in him.
The time has come to cease wishing for the ‘good old days’ and bid farewell to the age of Federer capturing three or even two majors in one term. Perhaps, Federer fans should change their mindset and acclimate themselves to the fact that one major a year may the Swiss’ best accomplishment. Certainly, that’s not a far reaching objective for the next two or three years. For Federer, the hardest part may be resigning himself to the possibility of never again attaining the number one ranking.
Like many athletes who have enjoyed phenomenal success, Federer is not immune to downturns. In essence, this seems to be the second act of Federer’s career. When the final act arrives, Federer will the first to recognize it. Until then, there are many glorious chapters yet to be written.