As Roger Federer fell down two sets to none to Julien Benneteau in the third round of Wimbledon, it was hard not to wonder if Federer's best days were behind him.
Rafael Nadal had been defeated in the second round, but that was viewed as a strange aberration, while Federer's performance seemed to be indicative of the end of an era. He hadn't won a Grand Slam title in more than two years, and though he had won four tournaments in 2012, it seemed that the 30-year-old's best days were behind him.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of Federer's demise were greatly exaggerated.
Federer came back to win three straight sets against Benneteau, defeated Xavier Malisse in four sets and destroyed Mikhail Youzhny in the quarterfinals 6-1, 6-2, 6-2. Federer faced the defending Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic in the semifinals, where he made Djokovic look lost, tired and unfocused.
And then, of course, Federer defeated Andy Murray in a well-fought and spirited final, earning his seventh Wimbledon title, a record 17th Grand Slam men's singles title and a return to the top ranking in the world.
Federer's Wimbledon title was no fluke. Though he was spared from facing Nadal, he defeated four of the top 30-ranked players in the world, including the top-ranked Djokovic. He looked in perfect control for almost the entire final against Murray, leaving Murray little to say but "I'm getting closer."
While the popular consensus was that Federer's talents were fading, the truth is that he never went anywhere. After winning the Australian Open in 2010, he reached at least the quarterfinals in the remaining three Slams of the year, he won the Cincinnati Masters and climbed to fourth on the all-time title list. Federer maintained his stunning consistency in 2011, once again reaching at least the quarterfinals in each of the Slams, losing to the likes of Nadal, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Djokovic (twice). He won four tournaments in the year, including the ATP World Tour Finals.
Because of his lack of wins at the most prestigious events, it was easy to assume that Federer was no longer his old self. It was not that the quality of Federer's play declined, but instead that two brilliant rivals, Nadal and Djokovic, both hit their primes and ended the era of near-total dominance by Federer. While Federer could once count on winning a Slam or two a year, he found himself sharing the wealth with two fellow greats.
Reaching 30 years old was once the cutoff point for tennis greatness. Rod Laver and Pete Sampras each won their only post-30 slam just a few weeks after their 30th birthday, while Fred Perry, John McEnroe, and Bjorn Borg were both done in their mid-20s. The elite level of tennis is a young man's game, and historically speaking, Roger Federer should be done playing at the elite level. But apparently no one told Roger.
Federer's versatility is unrivaled in the history of tennis. He is able to play at the baseline or play at the net and can beat opponents in the volley or with his devastatingly complex serve. Unlike specialists who struggle when one aspect of their game—usually speed—begins to fade, Federer will be able to adapt by focusing on his remaining strengths. And the one thing that will never fade is Federer's intellectual understanding of the sport.
Federer also lives in an era where athletes in all sports are competing at an elite level longer into their careers. With scientific advances in our understanding of nutrition, body mechanics and training, top athletes can remain at their best for longer than competitors in previous generations ever dreamed.
Federer may not win Grand Slams at the same rate he once did, but this is due more to the talent of his top rivals than to a decline in his play. He is still the greatest tennis player alive, and his days of winning Slams are far from over.