Nobody knows how much time Roger Federer has in his career. Federer may not know any more than every fan and writer who tries to look into a crystal ball. But he may have to adjust his goals in playing tennis with a more uncertain future.
The end of a great athlete’s career comes with foreshadowing. Then it comes immediately. It’s not that the athlete ceases to be great but that his body can no longer respond to his mind and heart. Federer has always been so graceful and effortless in winning that we forget about the necessary health and hard work that have been the foundation to his talent.
Now that foundation has inevitably cracked. Without his younger, healthy body, he cannot put in the work and consistency to play at his former level. Oh, he can still do it in spurts, like his three impressive wins at the 2013 U.S. Open, but the grind of the ATP demands unprecedented energy and fitness. Federer has met his mortality.
Brazil Olympics 2016
When Federer declared his intentions to play in the 2016 Olympics, circumstances were radically different. He was fresh off his 2012 Wimbledon victory and had regained the World No. 1 ranking. But tennis years are dog years. One year later may as well be seven, and Federer has been on an odyssey that would rival the journeys of Ulysses.
Last week, Federer said tennis was much more fun to play when winning. Howard Fendrich of the AP quoted his relevant comment:
Clearly, when you win everything, it's fun. That doesn't necessarily mean you love the game more. You just like winning, being on the front page, lifting trophies, doing comfortable press conferences. It's nice. But that doesn't mean you really, actually love it, love it.
Would Federer hold on to try and play in the Brazil Olympics if he is not having fun and playing at a high level? It's fair to surmise that more struggles would reduce the joy, journey and likelihood to this goal.
However, if he can remain in the top five for 2014-2015 and win a Grand Slam title or two, the odds would be good in playing into summer 2016. Remember, just a few days ago, many tennis fans touted him as a contender to win the U.S. Open. All is not lost because of one loss to Tommy Robredo, so perspective is also needed.
At the moment, the dog years look lean and long, unless Federer's health and energy can recharge his best form. People tend to extrapolate the best and worst from the most recent moment.
Roger the Journeyman?
Federer will likely seek rest, renewal and training for one more great charge in 2014. He may keep trying to play with the larger racket he used at Hamburg and Gstaad.
Above all, he will need to be mentally invested to commit to the grind of the Masters 1000 tournaments and other preparatory venues to stay sharp and well-conditioned. A reduced schedule will be somewhat necessary to preserve his health and energy, but he needs matches and competition to peak for titles. It's a precarious balance more familiar to tightrope walkers.
His success will determine the continued length or brevity to his career end but so will his attitude and acceptance of his standing as a champion.
Tennis's most recently retired legends, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, were done playing within one year of their last Grand Slam appearance. They were hampered by injuries but also had high expectations of competing for championships. They were unwilling to hang on as journeymen, let alone get dragged through the streets of Rome as conquest victims.
Federer is more than a year removed from his last Grand Slam final at 2012 Wimbledon. If he cannot rekindle this championship form, will he be willing to accept a journeyman role much in the manner of Ivan Lendl or Mats Wilander? It would mean settling into a popular tour without the realistic designs or ability to compete at the top.
It takes a lot to set aside a champion's ego and then become a symbolic trophy for the likes of Sergiy Stakhovsky, Federico Delbonis and Daniel Brands. Does Federer want to tolerate them winning against his aging form while they gush about beating him as if showing the big game antlers they have tacked on their living room walls.
It can be humiliating for great champions and Federer hates to lose.
Many of Federer's fans are ambivalent. They want to see him compete, but feel heartbroken when he cannot play at his younger, epic level. But they are not the ones who will determine the end.
One day, Federer will wake up and know it is time to retire. It could come very soon or in a few years, but it will depend upon his productivity and joy of competing.
The final words are yet to be written. They will be important but not career-defining. Be sure to read to the end.