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Re-Examining Roger Federer's Legacy After 2015 Wimbledon Run

Joe Kennard@@JoeKennardFeatured ColumnistJuly 17, 2015

Jul 10, 2015; United Kingdom; Roger Federer (SUI) reacts during his match against Andy Murray (GBR) on day 11 of The Championships Wimbledon at the AELTC. Mandatory Credit: Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports
Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

Roger Federer’s latest near-miss at Wimbledon is a reflection of an aging legend whose glory days are in the nostalgia-tinged past. No longer exuding the same aura of invincibility he once did, he has watched a new generation of players usurp his reign at the top of the game. But this reality gives a new perspective on his legacy.

His earlier accomplishments now look downright superhuman in retrospect.

Maybe we took the level of success Federer achieved in his prime for granted. Because he made winning look so routine, most fans expected to witness greatness every time he stepped onto the court. And he usually delivered.

The numbers he compiled at the peak of his powers are nothing short of mind-boggling. Here are his season-by-season records from 2004 to 2007: 74-6, 81-4, 92-5 and 68-9. Of the 16 Grand Slam events played during that four-year stretch, Federer captured 11 of them.

Marinate on those statistics; we'll likely never see anything like that run of dominance ever again.

Roger Federer in 2007 after winning his fifth-straight Wimbledon title.
Roger Federer in 2007 after winning his fifth-straight Wimbledon title.ANJA NIEDRINGHAUS/Associated Press/Associated Press

To some, he approached deity status. In his renowned piece "Federer as Religious Experience," the late David Foster Wallace beautifully explained (or tried to) what made watching Federer such a visceral experience. Every match, he argued, there'd be a moment where Federer would do something so sublime that you'd wonder how it was even possible.

A certain beauty, grace and sophistication existed unique to his game. He transformed tennis into an art form, seemingly inventing shots on the fly. The way he'd contort his body to hit serves or snap his wrist to unleash a lethal forehand looked so effortless because of his masterful execution.

With a quick pitter-patter of his nimble feet, Federer would almost hover above the court. In another life, he'd probably give Fred Astaire a run for his money on the dance floor.

Vice Sports' Greg Couch said it best: Federer transcends time.

Greatness shouldn't be invoked so casually, or measured simply by the numbers. It requires context. An appreciation of history, and not just a recitation of it. Federer's greatness is that he keeps finding ways to amaze us no matter what point in history he's playing from. 

What era, exactly, should Federer be placed in? The truth is, Federer is a tennis time-traveler.

Federer is one of the most romanticized athletes ever to walk the planet, and it's easy to see why. Beyond the genius shot-making and overwhelming success, he's swayed spectators with his persona. On the court, you see a player who's icy cool even while facing pressure that would make others crack. And his affable, down-to-earth personality makes him a marketing darling and someone easy to support.

Perhaps those traits are what still make him so beloved. Inevitably, his results have declined from the majestic heights he once scaled.

Not even Federer is immune to the aging process.

The 33-year-old Federer we see on the court today is much different than the one who used to hold opponents under his thumb. This version of the Swiss athlete is more vulnerable, and you can almost spot the scar tissue left over by all the heartbreaking losses. He's become a more sympathetic figure because of that increasing mortality. 

Cracks first started to show in Federer's armor back in 2008, and they've been slowly gaining in size ever since. Entering that year's Australian Open, he had made the finals of the last 10 major tournaments played—a profound streak. But he bowed out meekly in those semifinals to a 20-year-old prodigy named Novak Djokovic.

Only later would Federer reveal he had contracted mononucleosis before the event, a factor which no doubt contributed to his unceremonious exit Down Under. What effect any remnants of that illness had on him in 2008 remains a mystery. But that season marks a clear line of demarcation in his narrative.

A wistful Roger Federer in 2008 after losing his Wimbledon crown to Rafael Nadal.
A wistful Roger Federer in 2008 after losing his Wimbledon crown to Rafael Nadal.Anja Niedringhaus/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

The persistent thorn in his side arrived in the form of Rafael Nadal, the ferocious bull who has frazzled Federer over the years with his lefty game and clay-court wizardry. In 2006 and 2007, Nadal beat him in six finals. Two of those losses came at the French Open, keeping Federer from winning a calendar Grand Slam both years.

A straight-sets shellacking at the hands of Nadal in the 2008 Roland Garros final raised many eyebrows and escalated Federer's malaise. Never before had he been so thoroughly outplayed; it was an ignominious day for the man who is obsessed with perfection.

At Wimbledon, Federer had beaten Nadal in the last two finals, including a five-set thriller the year before. Whereas Nadal owned the clay, Federer dominated the grass. When the two met again in the 2008 final, Federer was expected to continue those trends.

Thanks to an exhilarating match that many regard as the greatest in tennis history, Nadal finally toppled Federer and gained control of the throne. Wimbledon was supposed to be his salvation; instead, it became Federer's nightmare as he watched his younger foe steal his crown and the No. 1 ranking. 

His tailspin ended with a fifth-straight title at the U.S. Open. It was a ribbon on an otherwise disappointing season.

Roger Federer reacts after winning the 2008 U.S. Open.
Roger Federer reacts after winning the 2008 U.S. Open.Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

The following year, he reasserted himself by appearing in all four Grand Slam finals, winning his maiden (and sole) French Open title and a dramatic Wimbledon victory over Andy Roddick. Yet painful five-set losses—to Nadal at the Australian Open and Juan Martin del Potro at the U.S. Open—were symbolic of a Federer whose invincibility had long since faded.

His virtuoso dismissal of Andy Murray in the 2010 Australian Open final served as a turning point in his career. While he seemed destined to extend his prime with that victory, Federer instead entered a new era, one fraught with more fleeting moments of brilliance.

When he arrived at that year’s French Open, Federer had astoundingly reached the semifinals of the last 23 Grand Slam events. That streak came to a sudden end when big-hitting Swede Robin Soderling took him out on a damp and gloomy day in the quarterfinals.

Similar results would soon follow.

An exit in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon to Tomas Berdych meant Federer spent championship Sunday at home for the first time since 2003. Ditto for the U.S. Open, where he blew two match points against Djokovic in the semifinals. He had lost further ground to a younger rival.

Since his Aussie triumph in 2010, Federer has advanced to the finals in three of the last 22 major events he’s entered. That’s a stark contrast to the previous period, where he somehow wound up in 17 of 19 Grand Slam championship matches.

A turn-back-the-clock moment occurred when he defeated Djokovic and Murray in succession for the 2012 Wimbledon crown. To date, however, it remains his only major title in the last five years. 

Reaching Grand Slam finals has become more difficult for Roger Federer since the 2010 Australian Open.
Reaching Grand Slam finals has become more difficult for Roger Federer since the 2010 Australian Open.Andrew Brownbill/Associated Press

So what are the roots of this decline?

As an older athlete, he’s more prone to off days because his body simply doesn’t react and recover as quickly as it once did. He’s lost a few steps as well and lacks the top-end foot speed of his youth. Federer is no doubt still a phenomenally conditioned athlete, but even a minute deterioration can make a difference in the pro ranks.

Stubbornly, he held onto his antiquated Wilson racket well past its expiration date. That refusal to upgrade frames ostensibly cost him a shot at more major titles, and he looked borderline feeble in some instances against power baseline players who hit him off the court. And there were more than a few shanked backhands to boot.

Federer finally adopted a larger model in 2013 after a stunning second-round exit at Wimbledon, but the immediate results were mixed. He soon swapped back to his old blade. Not until the start of last season did he settle on his current racket, which took several months of acclimation.

To lessen the wear on his body and maximize that new frame, Federer has adjusted tactically. He realizes his best chance at winning points comes when he’s aggressive and moves to the net. With the help of volley master and coach Stefan Edberg, Federer has tried to move forward more frequently.

Those changes have paid off, just not to the degree he wants. 

When he cruised into last year's Wimbledon final, he had an opportunity to end his Grand Slam drought. Ultimately, he again fell victim to Djokovic—this time in a gut-wrenching five-set thriller.

Roger Federer couldn't outlast Novak Djokovic in their epic 2014 Wimbledon final.
Roger Federer couldn't outlast Novak Djokovic in their epic 2014 Wimbledon final.Pavel Golovkin/Associated Press

That match may be more a microcosm of larger problems than anything physical or mechanical he's faced in the last few years. On break points or in decisive sets, Federer's conversion rate seems sporadic at best. His inability to capitalize in these crucial situations leaves him (and his fans) often scratching their heads.

Titles at big events have arrived fewer and farther between because of those woes. Federer is also not immune to inconsistency early in events, and his third-round exit to Andreas Seppi at this year's Australian Open served as a particular stunner.

But it's important to keep perspective and realize that Federer is accomplishing what few tennis players have ever done in their mid-30s. Despite the increased frequency of his losses, he is still ranked No. 2 in the world and staying relevant.

That's not bad for a father of four.

During this past Wimbledon fortnight, there were many flashes of the vintage Federer. Take his semifinal destruction of Murray as an example. He looked pretty fresh by the way he zipped around the court and served precise bullets.

He just couldn't achieve that ultimate moment of triumph in the final, finishing runner-up for a second straight time to Djokovic. Yet even in defeat, that loss showed something: Federer isn't far from ending his slump.

The old man won't go away. Perhaps we've overlooked the special nature of his sheer longevity. Amazingly, Federer is hanging with players five to 10 years (or more) his junior. 

Because of that staying power, ESPN's Adnan Virk even argued for Federer as "the most underrated superstar athlete of our lifetime": 

Draw your own conclusions about that bold statement. Virk's underlying thesis, and it's a valid one, is that we didn't fully comprehend what Federer achieved during his zenith. Because he no longer wins as regularly these days, we can now step back and marvel at his extraordinary prime.

His unbridled love of the game keeps him playing. Yet even he would admit his judgment now rests exclusively on his performance at majors.

Three arduous years have passed since he captured his 17th Grand Slam title. That dry spell has allowed his greatest rival, Nadal, to creep up on his records and encroach on his claim as the greatest ever.

Legacy is the key word looming over Federer everywhere he goes.

His 10-23 record against Nadal is a substantial negative on his resume. But at age 29, Nadal is in the midst of a career crisis much more severe than anything Federer has ever experienced even at his lowest points. Whether or not Nadal will actually overtake Federer's major haul is firmly up in the air.

Djokovic, with nine Grand Slam titles, is charging fast at both of them. Before all is said and done, it's conceivable he could finish near the top of the list. His level of dominance right now (from a win-loss standpoint) is in the same ballpark as what Federer engineered in his heyday.

However, for all his technical precision and machine-like destruction of opponents, Djokovic still doesn't possess that same awe-inspiring factor Federer did. The Serb smothers you with his consistency, whereas the younger Federer played a brand of tennis that really can't even be adequately described with words.

It's tantalizing to argue over which player is the best of all time. And several people have a legitimate stake to that moniker. But as amateur historians with our macro-level view of the game, we risk missing out on what's happening before our eyes in this moment.

That Wimbledon loss shouldn't diminish Federer's place in the annals of the sport. Rather, it should make us cherish however long is left as he enters the sunset of his career.

All statistics are courtesy of ATPWorldTour.com unless otherwise noted. 

Joe Kennard is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. 

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