A tennis player's twilight is unlike any other athlete's. In team sports, an aging athlete can still rely on his smarts or hide on the field just to coast towards one final paycheck. Think a 39-year-old LeBron James in the 2011 NBA Finals.
In tennis there is no hiding and there is no coasting. There are no contracts; the athletes make their living on results. If a tennis player doesn't truly believe he can win anymore, he'll stop playing. If Derek Jeter doesn't believe he can hit .300 anymore, he'll subject the New York Yankees fans to two or three more seasons of .260 hitting and horrid defense.
Roger Federer hasn't won a Grand Slam title since the 2010 Australian Open. He's reached just one final since then at the 2011 French Open, where he unsurprisingly fell to Rafael Nadal.
As I live blogged Federer's five-set loss to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at Wimbledon, commenters theorized about the end of Federer's career. One such commenter said that (sic) "Its time for Federer to walk into the sunset...As a fan of his high quality tennis...I can not bear to see him loose such way , Its impossible for him to win with such power tennis players playing so well."
In what world is Roger Federer's current tennis not "high quality?" One could argue that Federer is still playing at a level that maybe only five other men ever have touched, and two of those five happen to be active and in their primes.
Consider the circumstances under which Federer lost at his last four majors:
At the 2010 U.S. Open, Federer fell in a long five-setter to Novak Djokovic in the semifinals. Federer was then blown out by Djokovic at the 2011 Australian Open, but I believe that was an aberration given Federer's masterful play against Djokovic at the 2011 French.
At the 2011 French, Federer lost to Nadal in four sets. It's not an exaggeration to say that Federer's drop shot on set point in the first, which missed by a half-inch, was the difference in the match.
And at Wimbledon last month, Federer simply ran into a buzzsaw in Tsonga, who everyone knew would go on a hot streak.
These four losses are not the losses of a soon-to-be-irrelevant tennis player. Andre Agassi skipped the Australian Open and the French Open the year he retired in order to save himself for Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Federer has made 29 consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinals and hasn't missed a tournament since failing to qualify for the 1999 U.S. Open. He's nowhere close to done.
Federer will not be expected to win the upcoming U.S. Open, but why can't he? He'll be the third seed and will very likely have to go through Nadal or Djokovic just to reach the final. (Nadal and Djokovic, of course, are human as well and could lose in the early rounds, but I digress.) Federer would need to play a perfect match against either man to win, but again, why can't he?
We've seen that Federer can still beat Djokovic, and believe it or not, the 18-year-old wunderkind Bernard Tomic might have made it even easier. Tomic's only-slightly-above-average slice backhand gave Djokovic fits. Federer's slice is top shelf, and unlike Tomic, he won't be mindlessly floating it hoping for a miss, but using it to set up cross-court forehands or down-the-line backhands.
Nadal, as always, is the tougher match. Federer will need to step into his backhand and make solid contact (which he has trouble doing against Nadal's spin) in order to control the point and not get pushed back too far.
Whether or not Federer wins the 2011 U.S. Open, his matches are without a doubt the most entertaining to watch. Nadal's physicality and Djokovic's remarkable consistency are wonderful, but there are limits to both. Neither allow for the type of artistry that Federer oozes (described, wonderfully, in long form by David Foster Wallace). If you watched the Wimbledon final, you surely felt something was missing. Djokovic vs. Nadal was decidedly not Federer vs. Nadal. The match was, therefore, inherently less interesting.
I won't argue that Federer is still the best. I'd no longer bet you my house that he'd win Match X. I don't know how long he'll play or how many more (if any) majors he'll win.
What I do know is that I used to hate tennis in the way that Agassi hated tennis—a good player who felt obligated to play. Roger Federer changed that. It's moments like this, and this, and who could ever forget this, that transformed tennis, for me, from a monotonous task which I needed to win, into a platform where I could perform and entertain in the same way a singer or actor does.
Ultimately, if Roger Federer were to watch me play a match in which I won 6-1, 6-2 but played like Nadal, there probably wouldn't be much to say. But if I played a match and lost 1-6, 0-6 but played one transcendent shot, I like to think Federer would congratulate me on that one shot.
So I won't hold him to that expectation either. As long as he entertains me, I'll be watching, win or lose, from the edge of my couch. And if you love tennis, you should too.