There is no one who was actually concerned for Roger Federer’s first round match against Germany’s Benjamin Becker at the Swiss Indoors Basel. But, nowadays, with Federer’s game under even more scrutiny than usual, every match the Swiss plays has a certain gravity. Federer prevailed 7-5, 6-3 in just under an hour and a half. As has been happening often lately, Federer got off to a slow start, but was able to rely on his serve and Becker’s errors to keep out of danger.
In the first set, Federer had eight break points and managed to convert only one—Becker double faulted. Federer’s net play was not up to par and he netted several balls that should have been winners. However, longer points tended to go in favor of Fed, and his lateral movement was good. Even playing below average, Federer’s movement was as graceful as ever, and he appeared to have much more time getting to each shot and loading up than Becker. Federer’s characteristic wrist whip allowed him to hit through his forehand and generate a heavy ball, arguably the best forehand on tour.
Federer seemed to be getting into a rhythm at the end of the first set, but Becker broke serve early in the second. Federer quickly broke back, held and broke again to take the lead and close out the set. Never at any point during the match did it seem like Federer was in peril. Why, then, do Federer’s errors today seem like causes for alarm?
The standard of play fans have come to expect from Federer is almost unreasonable. A match won at a score of anything other than 6-0, 6-0 is considered noteworthy, and a stray backhand triggers stories of decline. The hubbub made over the three consecutive double faults at the Shanghai Rolex Masters was enormous, whereas it is hardly news that Federer served three aces in a row against Becker today. These days, it is taking Federer longer to get to his peak level of play during a match. Sometimes it takes half a set, but it can take up to two sets—as demonstrated against Julien Benneteau in the third round of Wimbledon. Against Becker, the longer acclimation period did not harm Federer, but it will against top-10 players. Allowing Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray to take the first set makes it that much more difficult for Federer, who likes to play at a fast pace, to equalize. He is certainly capable of coming from behind, but he is a more successful front runner.
Another factor contributing to the intense scrutiny Federer is subject to is the concreteness of his retirement. In an interview prior to the Swiss Indoors Basel, the World No. 1 mentioned that he intends to play two to five more years on tour (via Roger Federer Fans). While two to five years is quite a range, up until now the time frame of Federer’s retirement was so nebulous that it did not affect how his matches were interpreted. During this year’s Olympics, Federer mentioned the possibility of playing the 2016 Games in Rio so long as he is in good health, indicating that he does not see retirement in the near future (via ESPN). The more recent interview, however, puts Federer’s career in a new light. Two years is remarkably soon and would mean a major loss to the tennis world.
With retirement possibly not too far off, everyone is looking for signs of decline from the 17-time Grand Slam champion. If you watch a match with an eye out for problems, you will undoubtedly find them and blow them out of proportion. Still, no one expects Federer to bow out in the first round. We expect him to make it to the final and to win the whole tournament. Federer fans always believe Roger will pull through. Even when he is down two sets and losing, they have faith that he will figure out a way to win and they are typically rewarded. He made it through five-setters at Roland Garros and Wimbledon this year, but how much longer will he be a fixture at the quarters and semis of the Majors?
It was big news at Wimbledon when Federer called for a medical time out. His back was hurting and he was seen wearing a black compression shirt underneath his tennis whites for the rest of the tournament. Immediately, rumors of failing health precipitated retirement speculation. At 31 years old, and with peers like Andy Roddick retiring, Federer must expect to be asked about the end of his career at nearly every press conference. Though the Swiss is five years older than fourth-ranked Rafa Nadal, it would not be shocking to see the Spaniard retire first. The length of Nadal’s hiatus has demonstrated the seriousness of his injuries and his style of play will not make it easy to stay healthy. Federer’s age makes him seem a likely candidate for retirement, but being exceptional in every regard he cannot be held to the same standard as the average player.
The years of three Grand Slam titles per annum may be over, but Federer is far from losing in first rounds. Federer’s drive and motivation are still very strong and he has an insatiable hunger that is only increased by the desire to prove critics wrong. If he does retire in two years, it would not be surprising to see him leave with several Major trophies before he calls it quits. But now that the term “vintage Federer” is being applied to his better performances, tennis fans have to acknowledge that the end is closing in on the widely regarded Greatest of All Time. Though Federer may not be at his peak any longer, the criticism is irrelevant. Very few players now, and in the history of tennis, would be capable of playing below peak and still hold the No. 1 ranking.