Roger Federer’s stunning second-round loss Wednesday at the Wimbledon Championships has re-ignited questions as to whether one of the game’s greatest-ever stars is done winning Grand Slams.
Yet the larger question coming from a second-straight sooner-than-expected Grand Slam exit is whether the time for him to walk away from the sport is fast approaching or even directly in front of him.
Federer’s four-set setback to Sergiy Stakhovsky at the All England Club not only further dismantled a tattered Wimbledon men’s draw, but has cast a significant shadow on the future of a career that has produced a record 17 Grand Slam titles, including his 2012 Wimbledon crown.
The second-round exit is the earliest in a Grand Slam for the legendary Federer in more than a decade and comes on the heels of a quarterfinals loss to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at Roland Garros three weeks ago that likewise ended his French Open campaign earlier than expected.
But losing to Tsonga late on the red clay is one thing; dropping a second-round match to a relatively obscure 27-year-old Ukrainian on his favorite surface and at a Slam in which Federer has won a record-tying seven times is absolutely another.
It is, to be sure, the most shocking loss of Federer’s proud history at Wimbledon and one that may have the third-seeded Swiss star looking long and hard at his future.
"This is a setback, a disappointment, whatever you want to call it," said Federer (h/t ESPN), who defeated Andy Murray in the 2012 Wimbledon finals to claim No. 17 of his stellar career. "Got to get over this one. Some haven't hurt this much, that's for sure."
So for the second time in only two years there is significant question as to whether Federer is done winning majors at a consistent clip or even at all. If the answer to that question this time around is yes, or even maybe, then the larger query has to be why Federer would continue to compete beyond the 2013 U.S. Open in September.
In recent years, Federer has limited his tour schedule in favor of being physically and mentally prepared for the grind of the Slams, showing that winning an 18th Slam and perhaps more is the top priority in the twilight of his brilliant career.
Prior to his early French Open exit and subsequent Wimbledon surprise, Federer brushed off questions of retirement, saying he continues to savor the moments of Grand Slam competition.
"I want to relive those moments over and over again," Federer said (h/t ESPN). "As long as I enjoy playing, why would I stop doing something I enjoy doing?
"[If I retired] it would be way too early and I'd love to do this for a really, really long time.
Whether or not he feels the same way following his shocking Wimbledon setback is something only Federer knows. Certainly the results of the past two years don’t definitively prove he can’t win another Slam, but they do indicate things are heading that way for one of the sport’s greatest-ever players.
Since his victory at the 2010 Australian Open, the Swiss star has won only the 2012 Wimbledon and has reached only one other final—the 2011 French Open, in which he was bested by Nadal.
Between the 2010 Australian Open win and the victory two years later at the 2012 Wimbledon, there were significant questions surrounding Federer’s future in Grand Slams. Then came his impressive run to a seventh Wimbledon championship last year, which included an epic five-set battle with Murray on the Brit's home turf and a return to No. 1 in the world.
Yet since then, the progress in Slams has stalled yet again; the same questions have re-emerged only louder and were further amplified by Wednesday’s 6-7 (5), 7-6 (5), 7-5, 7-6 (5) defeat to Stakhovsky.
During his nine-event Slam-less streak that ended in last year’s Wimbledon, there were a number of runs to semifinals, including two in a row at the Australian and French Opens leading up to that triumph over Murray on Centre Court last year.
Yet with this most recent set of setbacks, the latest doubts swirling around Federer’s game and future seem different. Following last year’s successful Wimbledon fortnight, Federer lost in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open to Thomas Berdych.
After a five-set loss to Murray in this year’s Australian Open semis (which included a 6-2 drubbing in the fifth) came the quarterfinal loss at the French and then this second-round setback that ended Federer’s amazing run of making it into the quarterfinals in 36 straight Grand Slam events.
Bottom line, in three of the past four Slams, the losses have come earlier than they did in the previous drought—and to players certainly not named Nadal or Djokovic.
Only Federer knows what he has left in the tank, how much he still believes he can win the Slams and how much he still wants to put in the work to make that happen. But results don’t lie, and if Federer is, in fact, still driven by Slam success, than the drive ahead must be murky at best.
Given that, the upcoming U.S. Open is critical in what the future beyond the final Grand Slam of 2013 holds for Federer. The space between Wimbledon and the U.S Open is significantly longer than that of the time between the French Open and the fortnight at the All England Club.
The break gives Federer the opportunity to prepare himself for the hard-court challenge at Flushing Meadows, and there is no doubt his game must improve if the results are to follow.
A strong run deep into the tournament, perhaps even a victory should the draw go his way, would once again silence the critics and doubters and recharge Federer’s batteries.
Should things go the other way and Federer is shown the way to the exits by another low-ranked opponent, then all bets are off and the time to hang up the rackets might be upon him.
All great players know their careers will end. Some, however, have a hard time discerning when that time is upon them. Something tells us Federer won’t be one of those athletes.
It's true the Swiss legend has managed to turn back Father Time before. His next opportunity comes in two months at the U.S. Open, where Federer can show Wednesday's Wimbledon loss was a fluke, a blip on the radar of the closing chapters of his career.
Make a deep run into the second week, and Federer should be making plans to prepare for four more Slams in 2014.
If the opposite happens, however, than the time might be upon Federer to walk away from the game he has been the face of for so long.