Australian open champion, quarter finalist at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. Finalist at the Madrid Masters, finalist in Halle and twice semi finalist of tour events. A 27-8 win/loss record. If this was Andy Murray or Novak Djokovic’s year breakdown we would talk about how good a year they were having. How they had taken the step up, they were truly one of the big guns of mens tennis now. For Murray and Djokovic a year like that would be a defining year in their careers. For Roger Federer it is also a defining year in his career, but the very opposite of reasons.
The Rome masters is, for me, the event that sticks out of Federer’s results. A second round – after a first round bye – defeat to Ernsts Gulbis came as a massive surprise to everyone looking on. Gulbis is a talented player with a lot of promise who should probably be higher in the rankings than he is. However, for Roger Federer he should fall into the category of barely-noticed-you-as-I-marched-to-final-rounds players. The same category that you will find Marcos Baghdatis, conquerer of Federer in Indian Wells, and Albert Montanes, Federer’s stumbling block on the clay of Estoril. Something has changed for Roger Federer.
The debate will centre around his age, his home life and his concentration. After 16 Slams can he motivate himself to push for a 17th? does he see Berdych or Soderling coming towards him in 5th gear and struggle to match their intensity now that he has the record he always wanted? Many have suggested that having two young twins at home has distracted him. Late nights and early mornings would tire anyone out, even the great Federer. It does seem hard to imagine though that Mirka rolls over in the middle of the night before a Grand Slam quarter final and informs Roger that it is his turn to tend to the children. There is one final problem for Federer, one thing that affects us all. At 28, it is hard to write Roger Federer off as being old. However, it is reasonable to expect that after 10 years at the top, 22 grand slam finals, 26 masters finals and 285 weeks as the number 1 ranked player (237 of them consecutively) something has to give. Watching Federer this year has been an uncomfortable experience, he is still clearly one of the best in the business, but that air of invincibility has gone. One of the joys of watching him at his peak was that you could depend on him being fantastic. You would leave the stands feeling that you had really witnessed something special. With age though, Federer seems to have lost that sparkle. He doesn’t feel quite like the superstar that he was. In team sports many wonderful players get to fade comfortably. Paul Scholes for example, he has spent the last few years playing a different role, being supported by younger team mates who know they have to work that little bit harder to ensure his mistakes are covered over whilst waiting for the moment of magic. On a tennis court though, it is just you and him. No one can help pick you up. Looks to your supporters change from understanding nods of knowing what to do to questioning looks pleading for some help. The opponent who has always struggled to find any weaknesses to exploit can now see that worry in your eyes, when a ball drops a bit short they now think to drive it deep into the corner as they would with any other opponent.
This monday Roger Federer will be ranked third in the world. When he finally dropped to second in August 2008 the ranking sheet looked like a typo. Now he will go into the US Hardcourt season ranked behind Nadal and Djokovic, and the weird thing is it doesn’t sound that strange.
Come September it would be no surprise to find Roger Federer marching out at the final in Flushing Meadows, dressed as always in his menacing all-black shoes, socks, shorts, shirt and bandana combo. The strange thing is, it wouldn’t be odd to see him trudging off that court a round or two before, looking funereal in all black.