There was a time—and not so long ago—when Roger Federer seemed to be hewn from a different substance than mere mortals.
His body seemed untouched by stress, injury, and fatigue. His resolve seemed impervious to challenge, self-doubt, or pain. His position as king of the castle, fending off all assaults, seemed impenetrable.
Records that had once seemed insurmountable were picked like apples from a tree; each more sweet than the last.
Only a year ago, Federer bit deep into the honeyed flesh of not one but two particularly golden fruits: his first French Open title and his sixth Wimbledon crown. After almost 12 months as No. 2, he took back the top ranking from an injured Rafael Nadal, and stayed there until—well, until this summer.
It was on the cards that Nadal would reclaim the top prize. His record on clay is unassailable, and he powered through the spring’s Masters and the French Open with consummate ease. Even the hard clay of Madrid—and Federer with it—succumbed to the Spaniard.
Although there were few raised eyebrows at Nadal’s French victory, there were several at Federer’s unexpected exit in the quarterfinals to the man he’d routed in the 2009 final, Robin Soderling. It also drew a line under a particularly special record: the first time he’d failed to reach a Grand Slam semifinal since 2004.
But it was not until Wimbledon that the hand of time seemed, at last, to reach its dark fingers toward Federer.
The scene of the regicide—for that is how it felt—was Centre Court where he fell in four sets to Tomas Berdych. It was the first time he’d failed to reach the Wimbledon final since 2002. More shocking, though, was that he fell, for a second time, in the quarterfinals.
The ripples from Federer’s two Grand Slam losses had other consequences.
He needed only to reach the French semis to stay No. 1 for a record-equalling 286 weeks. He fell one week short.
He needed to reach the semis at Wimbledon to stay at No. 2, but he slipped to No. 3 for the first time since November 2003. This sudden change in the world order had the obituary writers poised and ready to map out the slide of the former champion.
For in truth, Federer’s season had not been the most auspicious. He had failed to win a title since the Australian Open. He was then sidelined by a lung infection that brought an enforced month’s rest, so his early exits from the two big Masters in North America were put down to the lingering effects of illness and his under-cooked preparation.
Alarm bells began to ring, however, with the arrival of the clay season. In Rome, Federer fell at the first hurdle against Ernest Gulbis, and in the modest 250 event at Estoril, he lost in the semis to Albert Montanes.
The Federer armor was being pierced by men against whom he had not lost in years: Nikolay Davydenko, Marcos Baghdatis, and Berdych. His loss to Robin Soderling in Paris was the first in 13 meetings.
The next blow came on the grass of Halle, where Federer had never been beaten until Lleyton Hewitt got the better of him for the first time since 2003.
So the quarterfinal exit from Wimbledon opened the media floodgates. The consensus was that Federer did not have the game to counter the new breed of big, mobile men who could simply hit through his game.
Ivan Lendl summed it up: “They all can serve bigger than Roger and hit bigger than Roger.”
Brad Gilbert talked about his advancing years: “Very few players have dominated tennis at the age of 29.”
Darren Cahill added grist to the mill: “He’s going to have to work harder on the court and off the court.”
John McEnroe, franker than most, doubted Federer would ever regain the No. 1 ranking—though added that he still had more Slams in him.
Bottom line: Federer was still good but was no longer the best.
However, amid all the talk of decline, and away from the media’s prying eyes, Federer was already making his move. Ahead of the U.S. Series came the announcement of a linkup with Paul Annacone, the man who spent years coaching Pete Sampras.
Federer subsequently admitted that he spent that post-Wimbledon absence taking a long hard look at his game and his results during the year, and felt he was allowing his opponents to dictate play.
The solution, it seemed, was to take on a more aggressive, forward-moving stance and the man who knew all about such a game: Annacone.
Straight away, at the Toronto Masters, Federer started to chip-and-charge, take more volleys, make more errors but also make more winners.
He took revenge on Berdych and then beat Novak Djokovic. He lost the final to an Andy Murray playing at his very best, but Federer went on to take the Cincinnati title the next week.
Suddenly, there was talk of Federer being one of the U.S. Open favorites, not merely because he had won his first title since Melbourne but because of the signals he was sending out. Here was a Federer reasserting his desire to evolve and improve his game, and proving he was still deadly serious about staying at the top of tennis for a little while longer.
Annacone is back at courtside for Federer’s U.S. preparations, and the draw has thrown up some interesting challenges for the partnership.
In the third round, Federer meets Hewitt, who won their last match. In the quarters, there is a potential repeat of the French encounter with Soderling. Beyond that, in the semis, it could be Davydenko, who beat him twice in a row before his long break from action with a fractured wrist.
In the final, Federer could face Berdych, Murray, Gulbis or, of course, Nadal, all men who have beaten him this year.
He will need to beat all of them to keep his No. 2 ranking secure, and he cannot, yet, challenge for the top spot: that is Nadal’s whatever anyone’s results in New York.
The bigger incentive—apart from taking a sixth U.S. title—is the need to defend his No. 2 position. If Djokovic reaches the final and Federer does not, Djokovic will reclaim No. 2. If either Djokovic or Murray wins the title, either can become No. 2.
And one more interesting consideration: if neither Federer nor Djokovic makes the semis, and Murray doesn’t make the final, Soderling could be the new No. 2 by taking the title. And there are some out there who think he’s quite capable of doing just that.
So what about Federer’s end-of-year ranking? At stake are two Sampras records: the total number of weeks as world No. 1 and number of year-end No. 1 rankings.
Well that would be a mountain to climb. Federer, in theory at least, could overtake Nadal after Basel, but he would need to win every event and Nadal would have to lose at the start of every event.
Move on to the World Tour Finals and the scenario is little changed. It’s a pretty safe bet that Nadal will be world No. 1 at the start of 2011.
Only with next spring is there a realistic opportunity of Federer rising to the top. His absence with illness between Melbourne and the North American hard courts this year, and early exits in Indian Wells, Miami, and Rome, give him the chance to put on substantial points.
His problem will be containing the ever-improving men who took advantage of him in those events this year, the likes of Berdych, Soderling, and Gulbis. It’s likely, too, that Del Potro will also be back in the frame and taking big scalps.
Listen to Federer, and he’s clearly up for the challenge. His desire to win, his desire to prove himself the best, his feisty reaction to questions from the media—all demonstrate his intent. And his actions tell the same story.
He’s not afraid of hard work, of putting in the hours, of trying new strategies. He thinks he can win a couple of Slams a year, and intends to play in the 2012 Olympics.
Eventually, all good things must come to an end. It seems that this particular good thing has not got there yet.