Monday marked an historic occasion, as 17-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer dropped to No. 5 in the ATP tennis rankings.
It's the first time in a decade that Federer has fallen from the top four, and was brought on by his second-round loss at Wimbledon to Sergiy Stakhovsky.
Such a development suggests the 31-year-old Federer is finally declining, but that is not necessarily the case. The recent dip is more of an indication of the parity in modern tennis.
This is an unpopular stance, and it sounds outrageous on the surface, to be sure. However, in reviewing what recently transpired at the All England Club, it's obvious that Federer wasn't the only one to fall victim to a premature upset.
Even the perceived prohibitive favorite hasn't won the year's third Grand Slam tournament in the past six years, per Wimbledon's official Twitter account:
Several collegiate players I've spoken to who have a tangible understanding of the game and the skill involved have told me that the gap between the No. 1 and 100th-ranked players in the world is far slimmer than many observers suspect.
To say skepticism was rampant upon hearing that would be understating the state of mind I was in, but then Wimbledon happened, and it gave credence to that assertion.
So did Federer's comments after the loss to Stakhovsky, in which he suggested the media should reassess its coverage of men's tennis and not hype up marquee matchups before they happen.
Rather than harp on—or simply expect, and thus underplay—the stars making it to the latter stages of Grand Slam tournaments every time, perhaps it's time to indeed look at the sport from a slightly different angle.
Federer may have just fallen to a ranking he hasn't experienced since his early 20s, but he's still the fifth-ranked player on the planet. Only Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, David Ferrer and longtime rival Rafael Nadal are ahead of him.
LZ Granderson notes that the impressive aspect of Federer falling to No. 5 is the fact that he's still there—and has been for 10 years.
It's not so much a dip in play from Federer that has brought this on, but rather a simple superiority and evolution in each player's game with the exception of Nadal.
Djokovic has established himself as the clear No. 1, and when he's on he simply looks better than everyone else. He wasn't quite on his game in the Wimbledon final, and the perpetually improving Murray took him to task and beat him in straight sets.
The hard work put forth by Ferrer has paid off, as he's playing the best tennis of his career in an era that will likely ultimately boast four of the greatest players the sport has ever seen.
Nadal has always had Federer's number and had just polished off a magnificent clay-court season with his eighth French Open title. But that didn't leave him immune to shock at Wimbledon, as Nadal lost to Steve Darcis in Round 1—the 135th-ranked player in the world at the time.
With the amount of talent at the very top of men's tennis, it's amazing that Federer has been able to hang tough for so long. Now, it's getting even harder to escape past perceptibly far inferior opponents.
Take Murray's run to the Wimbledon title, for example. The Scot nearly lost to unseeded Fernando Verdasco, dropping the first two sets before roaring back to win. Verdasco used to be ranked as high as seventh but failed to maintain it, and the depth of competition is a significant contributing factor.
Look at Murray's semifinals opponent, Jerzy Janowicz. The towering Polish power player won the first set and looked in command of the third, before slipping up and losing, primarily due to a lack of experience, in four sets.
Janowicz looked every bit as talented as Murray that day, but simply didn't sport the necessary consistency to move forward. At the beginning of last year, though, Janowicz was No. 221 in the world, and suddenly finds himself 17th.
Back to Federer—he hit 72 percent of his first serves in against Stakhovsky, smashed 57 winners and committed just 13 unforced errors. The score itself—7-6 (5), 6-7 (5), 5-7, 6-7 (5)—shows how close the match truly was.
To put it simply, Stakhovsky played better, and hit 72 winners to just 17 errors.
On any given day in men's tennis, no one is safe. Wimbledon highlighted that reality a little more, and for Federer, it's forced him to pick up two extra tournaments in July in an effort to get his season back on track in Hamburg and Gstaad, per his official website.
The perception that Federer is declining isn't completely accurate, given the form he showed in London.
It's more of an indication of how the gap is closing between the top players and the up-and-coming youngsters—and even players like Juan Del Potro and Tommy Haas reviving their careers.
The months ahead are abound with opportunities for arguably the sport's best player of all time in Federer to turn his season around and add to his lone singles title in 2013.
Even with the implicit parity surrounding him, he's managed to make 36 consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinals and emerge as tennis' greatest champion. If anyone can bounce back from a moderate dip in the world rankings, Fed is a great candidate to cash in.
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