Why would a man who has appeared in 22 career Grand Slam finals (and won 16 of them) be eternally associated with one major in particular?
Because that man has never been in this kind of position at any point in his illustrious career before.
Roger Federer, 29, is creeping into the age of the unknown when it comes to tennis—that is, it is unknown when specifically he will decide to hang up his racket for good. But most speculate that the end is, likely, relatively soon. And, even if he decides to carry his career into his mid- to late-thirties, Federer will most certainly endure the ravages that Father Time always bestows onto the most undeserving of victims.
So, assuming we are near the end of Federer's career, or at least his prime, this 2011 French Open could certainly serve as a defining tournament.
Why? Let's take a look.
Federer, at his peak, maintained a run of success unmatched in men's professional tennis history. He was ATP's No. 1 ranked men's singles player for a record 237 consecutive weeks. He reached 10 consecutive Grand Slam finals between 2005 Wimbledon and the 2007 U.S. Open—another record. He won two or more titles every year from 2004 through 2007, which, as you may have guessed, is also an achievement unique to Federer.
How will Roger Federer finish at the 2011 French Open?
But in the span of 10 months, dating from last year's French Open to this year's BNP Paribas Open, Federer dropped from the world's No.1 ranked player to No. 2 and then No. 3. That's quite a precipitous fall for someone who remained on top for so long.
Now, in his first major tournament since slipping to No. 3, Federer can either prove to the tennis world (and, perhaps, to himself) that he isn't done yet, or that this is, in fact, the beginning of the end.
We remember plenty of athletes, especially the best of of the best, for how they perform once their mortality has been proven. Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway, after 15 ringless years in the NFL, ended his career with back-to-back Super Bowl wins in 1997 and 1998.
Don Mattingly, whose career was plagued and eventually shortened by persistent back injuries, made his only postseason appearance with the New York Yankees in 1995, his final season, and retired right before the Bronx Bombers' run of championship success during the end of the decade.
We have begun to see chinks in Federer's Swiss armor. But how will he respond?
Rivarly with Rafa
If Federer makes it to the French Open final, he will likely have to face his greatest professional nemesis, Rafael Nadal. In an otherwise golden career, Federer has always had trouble handling the world's current No. 1, as he currently sports a 2-5 Grand Slam finals record against Nadal.
What's more, Nadal has absolutely dominated the only major tournament on clay, winning five French Open titles in his career and beating Federer in three of those final matches.
The primary argument against Federer's case for being the greatest men's professional tennis player of all time is that he has been overtaken consistently by his one true rival. A Grand Slam victory on Nadal's best surface and with the remarkable Spaniard entering the prime of his career would leave a terrific mark on Federer's legacy.
A loss to Nadal, however, would only cement Rafa's status as Federer's Kryptonite. Furthermore, Nadal's ascension to potential all-time greatness would continue, as Federer's historical status would take another hit.
Dueling with Djokovic
While the Federer-Nadal rivalry receives all the fanfare, Novak Djokovic has come to be a thorn in Federer's side as well. Although Federer holds the 4-3 advantage in Grand Slam events, Djokovic has the distinction of being the only player besides Nadal to defeat Federer in more than one major tournament since 2004.
What's more, Djokovic is responsible for Federer's most recent slide in the rankings. Djokovic overtook Roger in the semifinals of the 2010 U.S. Open and in the semifinals of this year's Australian Open—making him also the only player besides Nadal to take down Federer in consecutive Grand Slam tournaments.
After another victory against Federer in the BNP Paribas Open in March, Djokovic rose to No. 2 overall in the world, leaving Federer at No. 3.
The French Open bracket currently stands to set up yet another semifinals matchup between Federer and Djokovic. If Federer falls once again to the Serbian star, his career will be marred by downfalls against two of the greatest competitors of his era.
If Federer can overtake Djokovic and reach the French Open finals, he can stamp his dominance against at least one of his pseudo-rivals (that is, anyone who isn't Nadal) and prolong his run of success.
This upcoming week will tell us a lot about Roger Federer, on both an individual level and, if the draw continues as expected, on a competitive one. It is times like these that are critical for the premier performers in sports; now we can only watch how it all unfolds for one of tennis's all-time bests.