Roger Federer has been among the top players in the world for more than a decade, and that is still the case today, but based on his current form it is hard to imagine Fed being a major factor in the upcoming French Open.
Prior to entering the Madrid Open, Federer hadn't played in a tournament since March. Some observers felt like the time off might be beneficial, while others believed that it would lead to some rustiness. The latter proved to be true as Federer was ousted by No. 14 Kei Nishikori in the third round by a score of 4-6, 6-1, 2-6.
Clay is Federer's worst surface, but he is still among the best in the world on it. Federer has three Madrid Open titles to his credit, including last year's tournament. He failed to repeat, however, and his uncharacteristic performance against Nishikori in the third set shocked ESPN tennis anchor Chris Fowler.
Chris Fowler @cbfowler
No one. No one saw Nishikori dismissing Federer 6-2 in the 3rd. Great win for him. Rafa is about 1-5 odds vs the field to win title.2013-5-9 16:48:25
While it's always surprising to see Fed bow out early, perhaps it shouldn't be at this point. This season has been a miserable one for him thus far, as he has yet to win a tournament in five tries. In fact, he hasn't even reached a final in 2013. Losses to the likes of Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray are understandable, but Federer has dropped matches against Nishikori, Tomas Berdych and Julien Benneteau as well.
The Swiss star is just 31 years old and still possesses all the tools necessary to win Grand Slams, but Federer has suddenly become an inconsistent player. Consistency has helped him win 17 Grand Slam titles 76 overall titles over the course of his storied career, but for whatever reason he is now struggling mightily in that regard.
Federer is still the No. 2 player in the world, so he will likely be placed in an advantageous draw at Roland Garros, but that may not matter. Even if he doesn't have to meet players like Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal until the latter stages of the French Open, there will be plenty of pitfalls along the way (considering how he has been playing lately).
Fed's loss to Nishikori was particularly troubling because he seemed to have the match well in hand. Federer struggled out of the gates, but he took control in the second set. Nishikori's will should have been broken, but he somehow managed to make quick work of Federer in the decisive set, which means that he wasn't intimidated by Federer's mystique in the least.
Although Federer is pretty much always the most talented person on the court, his mere presence has often been enough to give him a competitive advantage. Now that Federer appears mortal and has won just a single Grand Slam (Wimbledon 2012) since taking the Australian Open in 2010, the fear factor isn't really present any longer.
In addition to that, clay has never been Federer's favorite surface. He has just one French Open title to his credit, and it came because Robin Soderling upset Nadal for him in 2009. With Nadal back in top form and both Djokovic and Murray looming as well, a lot of things will have to go perfectly for Federer in order for him to win the French Open.
At this point it seems like Federer's struggles are mental as much as they are physical. That may seem strange, since Federer has always been one of the most mentally-tough players out there, but it appears as though he has trouble dealing with adversity now. Federer is so used to outclassing his opponents that he may not know how to handle a grind-it-out affair.
Federer may not have many years of elite-level tennis left, so he needs to figure things out quickly. Every tennis player reaches a point where they must evolve, and that time has come for Federer. He may be able to make the necessary changes eventually, but it simply won't happen quickly enough for him to do damage in the French Open.
Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter