Once revered for his near perfection and artistry on the court, Roger Federer is finding it much tougher in 2015 to have sustained success.
As his 34th birthday draws near, more blemishes have started to appear in the world No. 2's game. Not even the Swiss legend can fend off Father Time forever.
This season especially has been an unusual one for Federer.
His campaign started off well in Brisbane with wins over Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic, and he stormed to the title. In the final against Raonic, Federer moved and hit the ball so crisply that it was easy to peg him as a contender at the Australian Open and beyond.
His stay in Melbourne was cut unceremoniously short, however. While he glided through his opening match against Yen-Hsun Lu, Federer encountered trouble in the second round against Italian journeyman Simone Bolelli, holding on for a tough four-set win. That match was a bad omen.
Against another Italian, Andreas Seppi, in the third round, Federer's Down Under dreams turned into a nightmare during a listless four-set loss. Seppi totally controlled play from the baseline as errors flowed left and right from the Swiss. Federer's 11-year run of making at least the semifinals at the Australian Open had come to a disappointing end.
Maybe an unexpected vacation was exactly what he needed after a long 2014 season. Federer certainly looked rejuvenated at his next tournament in Dubai, storming to the title without dropping a set. In his path, he defeated an impressive collection of opponents, including Mikhail Youzhny, Fernando Verdasco, Richard Gasquet and teen sensation Borna Coric.
He saved his best for last in the Arab desert, mastering Novak Djokovic in a straight-sets championship masterclass. Federer had harnessed his vintage self with that eye-opening performance, and his stock was trending upward.
That momentum carried over across the Atlantic Ocean when Federer surged into the Indian Wells final. He made quick work of talented players like Jack Sock, Tomas Berdych and Raonic, winning his 10th consecutive match in straight sets. Yet that streak finally came to an end against Djokovic.
In a rematch of their 2014 final, Federer and Djokovic battled once again. Despite dropping the opening frame, the Swiss gutted out a tense second-set tiebreak to force a deciding set. But Djokovic left Federer in his dust as he raised his game and earned payback for Dubai.
Even with the loss, Federer couldn't have been too upset with the way he played against the world No. 1. Opting to skip the Miami Open, he instead turned his sights toward the upcoming clay-court season. So far, that extra preparation hasn't paid off.
Clay has always been a surface which makes Federer look uncomfortable. Sure, he captured the 2009 French Open title after Rafael Nadal's shocking fourth-round exit and has made four other finals at Roland Garros. But his attacking style is more suited to grass and hard courts.
Because the dirt yields a higher bounce, opponents have more time to recover and hit shots. It becomes tougher for Federer to push people around with his serve and forehand or put them away with a net rush. In recent years, he's more prone to being bullied from the baseline on clay.
Those deficiencies resurfaced in Monte Carlo where Federer suffered an ugly straight-sets defeat to Gael Monfils. The Frenchman played an exquisite match, no doubt, but Federer just seemed off all day. He meekly netted returns and sailed forehands long, squandering a chance in the second-set tiebreak to extend the match.
It was an inauspicious start to his clay-court season. And not even a recent title in Istanbul has quelled doubts about his form.
While Federer captured the inaugural tournament in the Turkish metropolis, his week there was far from convincing. He labored through his matches, needing three-sets just to survive against meager competition like Daniel Gimeno-Traver and Diego Schwartzman. In the final, it took Federer 24 points to close out a deciding-set tiebreak against Pablo Cuevas.
Armed with his 85th career title, Federer arrived in Madrid cautiously optimistic. Despite not playing his best in Istanbul, that hard-earned victory could have been a momentum boost before the French Open. Instead, he left Spain more deflated than ever.
Australian rising star Nick Kyrgios showed few signs of fear against Federer in their second-round clash. He dropped one huge serve after another, never letting the Swiss get into a proper rhythm. Three sets turned into three tiebreaks. Yet it was Krygios who was left standing while Federer endured another early loss on clay.
With the French Open just a few weeks away, Federer is struggling to put together any real momentum. He's been bullish about even participating in Rome, further clouding his outlook at the second Grand Slam of the year.
But more so than just the immediate future, Federer's up-and-down results in 2015 could be ushering in a new reality for the tennis legend.
As FiveThirtyEight.com's Carl Bialik pointed out, the Madrid loss continued a disturbing trend for Federer.
Federer lost before QFs in 3 of last 6 events; just twice in prior 21. Four of his last 5 early losses were on clay. http://t.co/nsrY88RcMJ— Carl Bialik (@CarlBialik) May 6, 2015
It's becoming more clear that Federer is vulnerable in his advanced age, especially on the dirt. All those countless hours on the court over the years have put tremendous mileage on his lithe frame. At some point, there had to be a dip in his play, and we're now witnessing the early stages of that inevitable decline.
At 33, it's more difficult for Federer to continually channel his best form. He's probably lost a step or two compared to his glory days, but age also brings slower recovery time for the body. With men's tennis growing more physical and demanding every year, that puts extra strain on Federer.
So where does he go from here?
Based off his recent clay results, the Swiss won't be considered a favorite in Paris. Just reaching the second week there would be an enormous accomplishment.
But like Nadal at the French Open, Federer will be judged by how he performs at Wimbledon next month. The pristine lawns of the All England Club have always been his haven, a place he's reached nine finals and won seven majors. Surely, he's already dreaming of the switch to grass next month.
Federer is clearly entering the twilight of his storied career. While it's still way too early to write his tennis obituary, fans will have to accept that nothing will come as easy for him as it once did. There will be flashes of greatness mixed with increased unpredictability.
Only time will tell how exactly much magic is still left in his racket.
All statistics are courtesy of ATPWorldTour.com unless otherwise noted.
Joe Kennard is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.