Don't go kicking dirt on Roger Federer's grave just yet.
Just when everyone had started shaking the hourglass to see if there was any time remaining in Federer's viability among the world's best, the 31-year-old Swiss star has picked himself out of the rubble.
On Sunday, Federer defeated Mikhail Youzhny to win the 2013 Gerry Weber Open in Germany. And while it would normally come with a dispassionate shrug that usually comes when someone of Federer's caliber wins a tertiary tournament, that wasn't the case with this year's Gerry Weber.
Instead, this victory marked the first for Federer of not only 2013 but since his Western & Southern Open triumph last August. The 10-month drought was the second longest of his career—the first being between career titles No. 1 and No. 2—and was by far the lengthiest of Federer's reign as the monolithic tennis figure of his generation.
After the match, Federer seemed to feel like this victory would give him some semblance of momentum going forward.
"I feel fit; I feel confident. I'm excited about what's to come," Federer said per the Associated Press (via ESPN). "I'm very pleased with how I played this week."
The phrase "what's to come" almost certainly alludes to Wimbledon, which will get underway on June 24. Federer's journey to the All England Club is always one of note, what with him having the opportunity to win an eighth championship at England's most storied event. And coming off a win at the Gerry Weber Open—especially after such a long drought—will certainly perk excitement into Federer's story again over the next week.
The narrative coming out of Federer's win, as it tends to with all aging athletes, is whether he can keep it up going forward. The field in western Germany was little more than a drab collection of merely fine players.
Tommy Haas, in all of his 35-year-old glory, was the only player ranked even inside the top 15 in the world that Federer faced in the entire event. Youzhny wasn't even ranked in the event. We weren't exactly talking about an all-star cast of characters here. So it's understandable if people's opinions vary wildly on what this victory means, how it will relate to Wimbledon and how it feels to be extolling the virtues of Federer after a 10-month title drought.
The question that you'll hear in the coming weeks, in one form or another, all comes down to this: Is Roger Federer still an elite tennis player?
In a word: yes.
Of the adjectives listed in the official "Super Duper Important Sportwritery Words," available only to those in this chosen profession, "elite" is perhaps the most frustrating. It carries no absolute definition, nothing one can point to to disprove or prove an argument for one side or another. Elite is the word for those who are merely looking for a way to ascribe meaning when they are unable to make more substantive arguments.
Being "elite" isn't even in the same stratosphere as "momentum," another word that will get plenty of eye-rolls from people who actually care about ascribing tangible traits to these games. When in the building for events, you can feel the tangible switch in momentum. The switch to elite or not elite—and its many equally inane synonyms—has no such feeling.
The most recent example of this, obviously, is Manu Ginobili's resurgence in Game 5 of the 2013 NBA Finals. Heading into that contest, one of the many narratives was that the Argentinian guard was no longer "elite" or a "superstar." While that proclamation is probably the correct one—and people were just about 12 months behind on that, for what it's worth—Ginobili's Game 5 performance flipped that narrative on its head.
The feeling is similar with Federer. Federer will always be a force to be reckoned with on the grass courts, probably into Haas' age bracket should he choose to play that long. Roger Federer on grass is (almost) what Rafael Nadal is on clay. The surface fits his game almost perfectly, and there are few imaginable scenarios in which Federer fails to at least make the semifinals
That feeling of inevitability, of Federer's unrelenting greatness on the world's most renowned surface, brings us back to the "elite" conversation. By the very nature of the definition, Federer is still a very "elite" tennis player. Merriam-Webster defines the word as meaning "individuals carefully selected as being the best of a class."
Roger Federer is ranked third in the world, though Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer are fast catching up. Under the very worst possible scenario for Federer—in which you feel he's the fifth-best player in the world—he's unquestionably elite. Imagine being the fifth best in the world at something and people suddenly telling you that you fell off.
It's a strange thing in individual sports, though, the relationship between perception and reality. Perception is that Tiger Woods has completely fallen off over these past five years without a major championship. Reality is that he's finished in a tie for sixth or better in eight of his last 16 major starts.
The situation is similar for Federer. While he's no longer the dominant force he once was and probably never will be again, he's still one of the best players in the world and a formidable threat to win every tournament he enters.
Perhaps that's merely a pitfall of reaching such an unalienable level of greatness. That we expect so much and become disappointed when our deified heroes start suddenly looking mortal. That fans are afraid that his 2012 win at Wimbledon was his last "surge" before succumbing to his tennis death. That some fans have stopped considering Federer "elite" as a preemptive coping mechanism.
Doing so is perfectly within fans' rights. But it also doesn't change the reality. The reality is that Federer is a 31-year-old tennis player who is almost certainly in the twilight of his career. The reality is also that he's still one of the five best players in the world, an impenetrable force of grass-court excellence that will again be on display at the All England Club.
Will being still "elite" mean Federer repeats at Wimbledon? Who knows? It ultimately doesn't matter that much. Federer will make his run because he's still more skilled than any other player in the world on grass. And at age 31, maybe it's time to appreciate that rather than shielding ourselves from the impending downfall.
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