Roger Federer is in his worst slump since 2002. This is the first time since '02 that he has failed to reach the quarterfinals of three consecutive tournaments.
Worrisome isn't it? He is surely, over and out. His motivation is gone, he is sated, and has won all he wants.
Wrong, I dare say.
The pundits are not as quick to write him off as they were at this time last year, yet the general mood is one of concern at the moment. What alters it from last year, is that he came back from sure "retirement" to win three of the last four slams, losing the fourth in a five-setter many say he should have won.
Thus, this year the attitude seems to be one of worry, but the observer must always remember that the let's wait and see mentality can work, too. After all, he has proven us wrong before.
I believe this is a very wise attitude to have.
The tennis Federer displayed in Australia was some of the best he's played in years. Since then, his play has been found wanting and sometimes erratic, his timing has been off, and his mental strength all but impressive.
We all know the three defeats by now: Marcus Baghadatis in Indian Wells, Tomas Berdych in Miami, and now also Ernests Gulbis in Rome. All of them came before the quarterfinals. All of the matches were tight three-setters, while Federer enjoyed match-points in the two former competitions, before losing in third set tiebreaks.
None of opponents are top 20 players, though they all have plenty of potential.
Should we be worried?
Well, I don't think the fact that his play is off is that worrisome. That simply happens.
However, I do concede that it is odd, strange, and worrisome that he somewhat seems to have lost his ability to close out tight matches to his own advantage.
This is the true mark of a champion, and both Federer and Rafael Nadal used to know it by heart. These days Federer seem to have lost that precious skill to come out on top when the going gets tough. If it was only his play, it would mean less.
The lack of ability to close out those close encounters gives us reason to speculate about the deeper reason for those loses. Is it his motivation and will to win? Or are there other reasons?
Some say, he is playing a trick. He is saving himself for the Grand Slams, losing early in the Masters Series in order to be as fit as possible for the really big ones.
I don't buy into this argument.
He needs the other players to believe they can't beat him. That is how he used to win many of his matches, and that is how Nadal wins many of his clay matches. By being miles ahead in the mental game even before both players set a foot on court.
On this logic, it doesn't make sense suddenly to give a Nikolay Davydenko and a Berdych–both formerly "enjoying" a 0-12 record against the Swiss–hope that they can actually beat him. The more players he loses to, the tougher a time he will have.
Another often heard argument is that Federer simply doesn't care about the Masters Series, and look at his record the last three years would appear to prove just that.
He wins more than half of the Grand Slams he enters, while he only wins one in every seven of the Masters he enters. He might care, yet subconsciously care just a little less. Which can be all it takes to lose a close match instead of winning it.
Finally, it has been said that he has won it all, so he really has no reason to keep on fighting and winning. He is sated and can no longer motivate himself. This, I believe, is a clear underestimation of what drives a person like Federer.
First of all, he has won the Australian Open at a time where exactly the same things concerning his motivation could be said, and was said. Furthermore, he has plenty of goals that do motivate him, apart from the sheer love of playing tennis.
On the long term, his eyes are on London 2012, as in Olympic gold in singles. In order to achieve that, he needs to stay afoot and be competitive.
But there are numerous short-term goals that should and do give him plenty of motivation. The include:
1. Winning the French Open for a second time, thereby silencing the critics. He would never publicly concede that he wants this, but I bet that he does want to put an end to the so-called asterisk argument, that is if he can.
2. Equal Pete Sampras' seven-win Wimbledon record.
3. Beat Sampras' 286-week No. 1 ranking.
4. Be the year-end No. 1, and equal Sampras here, too.
5. Continue winning in general, in particular, Grand Slams.
Motivation wise, this should be plenty for Federer. So what is the problem now?
His play, simple as that. And that, for all we know, can be fixed.
The problem really is that without confidence in his play, he loses some of the mental edge an self-belief that formerly allowed him to close out those close encounters.
Exactly the same thing that happened to Nadal until he returned to his beloved clay. The fear-factor and the self-belief wasn't as high as it can and should be.
Furthermore, let's not forget that the players Federer has lost to are not third-tier nobodies, but deadly players on their good days.
As for the worrying I say, let's wait and see two-three Grand Slams down the line before we bury him.
Until I've seen proof of anything else, I suspect the Federer turning up at the Slams is a different and better Federer than we get to see in between.