Roger Federer has rarely looked as shaky as he did on Thursday night in Melbourne, when he lost 11 points in a row to Rafael Nadal in the midst of Rafa’s semifinal victory at the Australian Open. For all the negatives to take away from that match, though, it’s far too early to count Federer out for the long-term.
The key point to recognize about Federer is that his biggest opponent is not Nadal nor Novak Djokovic. Federer’s biggest opponent is Federer’s expectations.
The Swiss superstar will never match the show he put on from 2004-2007, winning 11 Grand Slam titles in four seasons, but anything less that that level comes as a letdown for fans. The fact that he’s made “only” one appearance in a Grand Slam final since winning in Melbourne in 2010 means he’s slowing down, but that’s far from the same thing as being done when it comes to competing at the top levels.
Federer is 30, certainly old for a men’s tennis player but not impossibly so. Pete Sampras—who held the record for Grand Slam titles at 14 until Federer broke it—won his last at the 2002 US Open just after his 31st birthday.
That championship also came after an extended dry spell, as Sampras appeared in just one major final in 2001 and hadn’t captured a major title since Wimbledon in 2000. The fact that Sampras was clearly on the downside of his own amazing career didn’t mean he wasn’t still a formidable foe, and the same goes for Federer now.
Just two days before faltering against Nadal, Federer had thrashed the dangerous Juan Martin del Potro in straight sets. He still has plenty of high-level tennis left in him, and even if he’s no longer the world’s best player, he’s still good enough to be a major factor in the next several Grand Slam tourneys.