Roger Federer's easy dispatching of Benoit Paire in the first round of the 2013 Australian Open may have been wholly expected, but it had to be a comforting sign for those fearful of the Swiss star's downfall.
Navigating the court as only he can, Federer came away with a 6-2, 6-4, 6-1 beatdown of the 23-year-old Frenchman who (understandably) looked overwhelmed. Federer won 84 percent of his first-serve points despite only nailing three aces and drilled 25 winners.
Next up for the second-seeded Federer is a tussle against Nikolay Davydenko, a player with a ton of experience who still shouldn't pose much of a threat. Once the third-ranked player in the world in 2006, Davydenko's play has taken a nosedive as he's gotten older.
Ranked 40th in the world now, nestled just behind the retired Andy Roddick, Federer should dispose of Davydenko with relative ease.
On most levels, Federer dominating early is to be expected. Federer is the second-best player in the world, according to the current ATP rankings, and is coming off a brilliant 2012 season. He should be able to make his way through the dregs of a major tournament like the Australian Open with relative ease en route to a clash against Andy Murray and/or Novak Djokovic.
Of course, that's expected until you remember that Federer is 31 years old—equal to the age of his "fallen off" counterpart on Thursday.
As most tennis lifers know, being 31 in the sport isn't old—it's geriatric. All-time greats like Pete Sampras never won a Grand Slam championship after the age of 31, and there are a very select few guys who have stayed elite into their mid-30s.
Andre Agassi is the most recent example of a player who excelled late in his career, but he's far more of an exception than a rule. Mathematically speaking, Federer's days of Grand Slam contention are dwindling exponentially with each turn of the calendar year—especially with Djokovic and Murray squarely in their primes.
On the other hand, most learned the hard way last year that Federer isn't going to succumb to his increasing age overnight.
Just when folks had begun writing him off, Federer came back with one of the more impressive campaigns of his career in 2012. He ascended back to the world No. 1 ranking spot for much of the year after winning six tournaments, including his seventh Wimbledon title.
It is arguable, though, that we saw fatigue set in for Federer down the stretch in 2012. He failed to win any of his final four tournaments of the season, including a disappointing ouster at the hands of Tomas Berdych at the U.S. Open.
What's more, only two of Federer's wins last season came after May.
Granted, Federer was still playing well enough to reach the quarterfinals in each event. But there is a fine line between being one of the two or three best players in the world and simply being a very good contender. Federer isn't going to suddenly fall off a cliff and start losing in the first round, so it's always best to look for gradual trends for when father time will start eroding his greatness.
Based on what we saw from Federer in his match against Paire, that erosion won't be happening at the Australian Open—at least early-on. He spun the ball with precision and looked extremely well rested after a relatively long break.
There is still a ton of tournament remaining in Melbourne and we'll get a better barometer as Federer continues into the tournament. Older players tend to wear down and make more unforced errors as a tournament goes on and that's something worth watching for Federer.
Nevertheless, when he's at the peak of his game like he was at points against Paire, it's undeniable that Federer is still one of the best players (if not the best player) in the world.
With some predicting 2013 as the beginning of the Djokovic-Murray era, it seems like Federer is once again getting readying to tell the tennis world that his reign isn't over just yet.
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