It was Thursday in Madrid and Roger Federer had just won the second set from Kei Nishikori, 6-1. Now, at the start of the third, he was up 0-30 on Nishikori’s serve. Federer had finished the previous point with his best backhand of a mostly bad day, a down-the-line bullet winner that he had celebrated with a vintage Swiss wail of approval. It looked as if, despite his slow start, obvious rust, and many shanks, that Federer had restored order and would cruise to career victory No. 892.
Then Federer missed a return long. He shook his head. He missed another return. He shook his head again; apparently finding his range wasn’t going to be quite so simple today. By the end of the game Federer had missed five returns in six points and failed to break. It would be Nishikori who would cruise to victory instead, 6-2 in the third. Afterward, Federer said that what had been especially disappointing was the fact that he hadn’t even forced the world No. 16 to play his best to beat him.
There were plenty of reasonable explanations for Federer’s early defeat in Madrid. This was his first tournament since March. It was on clay, his worst surface (relatively speaking, of course). Nishikori is a skilled and dangerous player who has beaten Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. And, besides all that, nobody wins them all, not even Roger Federer.
On the other hand, this was the earliest that he had gone out in Madrid since it became a clay-court event in 2009. Federer had thrived in the relatively quick conditions there in the past; he was the defending champion, and had recorded one of his two career wins over Rafael Nadal on dirt at the Caja Magica in ’09. Of more pressing concern was where the Nishikori loss left Federer for 2013: It dropped him to No. 3 in the rankings that will come out on Monday (which will in turn make him the third, rather then the second, seed at the French Open), and left him at No. 10 in the Race to London. If the field for the World Tour Finals, a tournament Federer has won a record six times, were made today, he wouldn’t be in it.
Is this the moment to bring up the dreaded ID-word—as in, the Inevitable Decline? This year Federer has lost to Nishikori in Madrid, Julien Benneteau in Rotterdam, Tomas Berdych in Dubai, Rafael Nadal in Indian Wells. That’s not a terrible line-up, and only Nishikori had never beaten him before. It’s just that in 2012 Federer won all four of those tournaments. Clearly he’s not where he was a year ago.
You might answer that he’s been in this position a few times in the past. In 2008, when he lost his Wimbledon title and No. 1 ranking to Nadal, and then flailed through North America that summer, there was speculation that the torch had been passed from Roger to Rafa. The next year Federer reached all four Grand Slam finals and finished No. 1. In 2011, Federer failed to win any majors for the first time in nine years, and appeared to have been permanently passed by Nadal and Djokovic. What did he do? He went on an extended tear that finished with a Wimbledon title and another trip back to the top of the rankings. So we obviously can’t discount another great run from Federer. But the cruel inevitability of age does make it less likely with each passing year.
When Federer won Wimbledon last July, I didn’t think of it as a last hurrah. But looking back now at his stretch of excellence from the fall of 2011 through the summer of 2012—he won nine tournaments in nine months—it’s hard to imagine him putting together another sustained run like that. Djokovic is a solid No. 1 now. Andy Murray is No. 2 and, after his win in their Australian Open semi, finally knows he can beat Federer at a major. And Nadal, who has reached seven finals in seven tournaments this year, is in the mix again. Those are formidable obstacles, and all of them are at least five years younger than Federer, who will turn 32 in August.
On the plus side, Federer has his health. He’s still the most durable top player, and that will always help his cause when it comes to pulling out another major. His consistency—Federer hasn’t lost before the quarters at a Slam in nine years—has meant that, whatever upsets he may suffer in smaller events, he’s always around at the end of the Grand Slams, always at least contending. I don’t think you can officially talk about decline until that changes, until he loses in the first week of a couple of majors in a row. The beauty of the tennis season is that, unlike in team sports, where every game counts toward making the play-offs, a loss at one tournament has no definite effect on how you’ll do at the next Grand Slam. Still, Federer will need to continue to find a way to give his body the rest it needs without allowing his game to accumulate too much rust. The two months he took off between Indian Wells and Madrid may benefit him later in the season, but they felt like a long time to be away.
How about Federer’s game? Can we detect decline as we watch him hit and move? That’s also tough to say. Those missed returns against Nishikori this week could have been the result of deteriorating reflexes; or they could have been the result of rust. More telling, to me, was Federer’s performance against Andy Murray at the Australian Open. That was a rare instance in which I thought Federer showed his age; Murray was the superior player for the vast majority of that match’s five sets. Yet Federer, frustrated and with his back to the wall at the end of the fourth set, was able to raise himself above Murray for the space of a few games and a tiebreaker. It was an untouchable display from a proud champion, and it earned him the fourth set. But he couldn’t keep it going in the fifth. Maybe that’s what we can expect from Federer in the future. Sustained runs of greatness, like we saw in 2011-’12, will be harder to come by, but we’ll still get the glorious flashbacks. Put that together with his presumed good health and history-making consistency at the majors, and another Grand Slam title is within reach.
Finally, and most important, what is Federer’s motivation now? This must be a tough period for him, having to train on clay with the knowledge that his chances of winning at Roland Garros are the slimmest of all the Slams. He may wish he could pull an Ivan Lendl and get a head start on the grass. In reaching No. 1 last year, Federer set the all-time men’s record for weeks in that spot, which had been a lingering ambition of his. And in winning Wimbledon, he returned to the champion’s circle at his favorite event. What’s left now?
There is, for one, the pleasure that Federer has always taken in competition. Though if he starts to lose more often, it may not seem quite as pleasurable to him. There’s the desire to have his twin daughters remember him as a player—that’s served as motivation enough for fellow father Tommy Haas this season. And there’s Federer's stated wish to play in the Olympics in 2016. He loves the Games, we know. Just as important, by saying that he wants to make it to Rio he can keep the press from bringing up the R-word—as in retirement—after every defeat. But three years also feels like a long time right now. I wouldn’t be surprised if he hangs up his sticks before that.
Since there’s no way to know what the future holds for Federer, I’ll finish with a few words from someone who has been there and beyond. I talked to Jimmy Connors yesterday and asked him if he had any advice for Federer. Jimbo, as you probably know, reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open at age 39—that would be the equivalent of Federer making the semis of a major in 2021!
“I don’t know if I can give any advice to a guy who has won 17 Grand Slams,” Connors said. “All I can say is that if he can accept the aging process and live with the limits it puts on you, then there’s no reason he can’t keep going and keep winning.”
Encouraging words, but that also sounded like a pretty big if. It can’t be easy for someone who has won so much to accept any kind of limits. Even Andy Roddick, winner of one major, was unwilling to continue in a diminished post-30 state. Jimbo, on the other hand, didn’t seem to mind not being No. 1 anymore. “I liked competing most of all," he says. "Whether I was winning or losing, I was playing tennis, so I was happy.”
Connors has faith in Federer’s ability and desire, win or lose, to keep doing what’s most important. “He’s always given his best," Connors says. "We don't have to worry about that.”