Federer's Gamble

It’s a stretch to say that Andy Murray took the No. 2 ranking away from Roger Federer when he won the Miami Masters on Sunday. It’s more like Federer left the No. 2 ranking on the dashboard of his car and walked away—with the windows down and the engine running. Somebody was bound to come along.

No disrespect to Murray here; he’s a deserving number two and he may well have wrenched that ranking directly from Federer’s hand, given the chance. But Federer didn’t even show up in Miami. Thus, he gave up the paltry 45 points he earned there last year (he was upset in the third round by Andy Roddick) instead of beefing up his resistance to the Murray surge by replacing those points with a better haul.

Clearly, Roger isn’t sweating the rankings. He’s earned the right, officially and sentimentally, to play as often or as little as he likes. His decisions in that regard will have an impact on his ranking, though. It leaves us wondering how much longer we can count on Federer being around. He’s 31, though during a time when the familiar age barriers are tumbling—Federer himself was beaten in last year’s Halle final by Tommy Haas, who turns 35 today. But Federer also is a family man and a somewhat jaded warrior.

The Swiss icon says he enjoys training, surrounded by his family, at his home away from home in Dubai. He also appreciates the proverbial “smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd” when he ventures forth to tournaments. But can he remain enough of a force in the game to feel comfortable and relevant if he eschews the rat-race aspect the tour—that mandate to grind away at a sufficient number of events, usually a mix of major and minor ones? That remains to be seen.

The pressure to perform at a high standard will only increase in direct proportion to the number of events Federer plays. He’s between a rock and a hard place: He may be happy to play just 14 tournaments (his schedule this year), which means that he’ll be playing four fewer events than the minimum requirement for mere mortals on the tour, those who haven’t earned similar exemptions. Every tournament will count toward his ranking, so one or two unexpectedly poor results will have an outsized impact on his position. And that means Federer could, at some point, end up meeting a Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal as early as the quarterfinals. (The latter came to pass at Indian Wells, when Nadal was ranked No. 5.)

Federer is, knowingly, taking a lot for granted—starting with his own superiority. Last year at this time, he’d already played seven events (including Davis Cup) and had accumulated 2,855 ranking points. This year, though, he’s eliminated three events (including Davis Cup) and has earned just 1,170 points.

Federer is coming off a terrific 2012—he won 71 matches, the most since he won 92 at the zenith of his powers in 2006. But the rolling ranking is inexorable, and Federer now has just as little margin for error as he loses or adds ranking points as he does when he pulls the trigger on that topspin backhand down the line. He’s counting on producing his best tennis, on demand, without a lot of throat clearing.

We haven’t seen Federer in about three weeks. And we won’t see him for over a month, until he makes his debut at the Madrid Masters. The good news for Federer is that he’s the defending champion; the bad news is that this year, the tournament is back on traditional red clay, after an unfortunate experiment with blue dirt. The slippery, quick surface suited Federer’s game. More important, it wigged out fierce red-clay traditionalists Nadal and Djokovic, who flamed out and then vowed not to return to Madrid if the tournament didn’t abandon the surface.

The upshot: Federer will be defending 1,000 points earned under fortuitous circumstances, and he’ll venture forth on the red clay without having played a competitive match in about two months. I think the world of Federer, but I also think that he’s taking enormous chances. Players get in a groove and winning—or in some cases, losing—becomes automatic, partly because of endless repetition. Now he’ll have to go out and produce right away, from something like a cold start. It seemed to work for him at the first Grand Slam of the year, when he made the semis. Will it also pan out mid-season?

Madrid is the start of a three-tournament clay swing for Federer. In 2012, he was also a semifinalist in Rome and at Roland Garros, losing to Djokovic on each occasion. That’s a superb record, but in the two previous years in Rome, Federer lost to Richard Gasquet (round three, 2011) and Ernests Gulbis (second round, 2010). He’s been stellar at Roland Garros throughout his career, but then, he’s gone in with a high ranking for almost a decade. Nobody can be sure he’ll roll into Paris quite as well insulated this year.

This then is the Federer bind—and the Federer gamble. You can’t fault him for the decision to be more selective in the events he plays, or for listening to his body (and heart) and creating exactly the kind of schedule that enables him to hit what he believes is the right balance. But tennis isn’t designed to accommodate the needs of an over-30 player (or an under-20, for that matter). It’s not graded on a curve, even if it makes special concession for players, like Federer, who have performed outstanding service. What it doesn’t give them is any consideration when it comes to how build a ranking. Nobody is keeping Federer’s seat warm at No. 2—or four, or six, or nine, or 11.

Federer has spoken enthusiastically about extending his career until the next Olympic Games in 2016, and there’s no doubt that, barring some disaster, he’ll still be a very dangerous player at that time. Heck, he’ll be younger than ATP No. 14 Haas is right now. The looming question is whether Federer will endure a trip south in the rankings. How far is he willing to fall and still feel that it’s okay, that he’s loving the challenge, enjoying the scenery, and living the life?

Last year at this time, Haas was ranked No. 137. He asked for a wild card into the French Open, but they refused him. Thus, he had to qualify—and to his credit he did so; he ended up playing six matches before losing Gasquet in the third round of the main draw.

Granted, the situation was different, as Haas was coming back from one of his innumerable injuries. But you have to wonder, how far behind the leaders on the tour would Federer be willing to fall before he begins to question the wisdom of what he’s doing?

It’s a question every single player on earth, from the lowliest journeyman to the greatest of champions, must face one day. This may not be the day Federer has to address it, but the next few months will tell us—and him—an awful lot. The only thing I myself feel confident about is that if he ever asks the Roland Garros pooh-bahs for a wild card, he will not be denied.