At what point does a slump become a decline? Many of Roger Federer’s most ardent admirers are asking that question as the Swiss prepares for the US hard court season. His last three tournaments have ended with losses to players ranked outside the top 50: Stakhovsky at Wimbledon, Delbonis in Hamburg and Brands in Gstaad. Surely the Federer of old would have dismissed these also-rans in little over an hour? Doesn’t his failure to do so mean that he is, regrettably, on the way out?
We all know that Federer’s playing days are numbered, and his winning days even more so: no legend has ever retired without first losing the powers that made him great in the first place. So is this the beginning of the end for Federer? Or should we hesitate to call time on one of the most accomplished careers in history?
A look back at Federer’s results from the last few years puts his current form into perspective. Some thought that he was on the fade as early as 2008, when he won only Estoril and Halle in the first half of the season. But he triumphed at the US Open that year to put such speculation to rest. The following year, he reached the final of every Grand Slam, winning the French Open and Wimbledon and coming within a set of victory at both the Australian and US Opens.
In 2010, Federer looked decidedly mortal. A mediocre spring sounded the alarm, and by the time he fell in the quarter-finals at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, the death knell was being rung by all but his most fervent supporters. Yet he went on to win three titles in the final months of the season, including the ATP World Tour Finals. Undeterred by Rafael Nadal’s hat-trick of Grand Slams and the rise of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, Federer outclassed all three of his main rivals in the final event of the year. Once again, he let his racket answer questions of decline.
In 2011, Federer failed to win a Grand Slam for the first year since 2002. A heartbreaking loss to Djokovic at the US Open seemed to suggest that he had been overtaken at the top of the game, and that the best he could now hope for was to maintain a place in the top five. How did Federer respond? By dominating the indoor season and ending the year on a 17-match winning streak.
The Federer Express continued to charge forwards in 2012. Djokovic, Nadal and Andy Murray got their fair share of the silverware, but Federer more than held his own, winning six titles including Wimbledon. A seventh trophy at the All England Club put him back at the top of the rankings, the perfect riposte to those who had pencilled in his retirement date.
It’s certainly true that, by Federer’s standards, 2013 has been underwhelming so far. Nevertheless, we should be wary of reading too much into a few surprising results. The Stakhovsky defeat seemed symbolic because it ended his record run of Grand Slam quarter-final appearances, but such a jaw-dropping streak had to stop sometime. Instead of lamenting the four-set Wimbledon upset, we should marvel that he managed to avoid such a fate in the previous 36 Grand Slam events.
The losses to Delbonis and Brands came on his weakest surface, when he was suffering from a back injury and experimenting with a new racket. Besides, it wasn’t the first time he was unseated by lowly ranked opponents in consecutive tournaments. Ernests Gulbis and Albert Montanes got the better of him in Rome and Estoril during the 2010 clay court season, yet he lived to win another day. And although he’s approaching his 32nd birthday, age isn’t a barrier to continued success: Andre Agassi was a genuine Grand Slam contender well into his thirties.
Many times over the last five years, it was possible to make the argument that Federer was fading. The man has set such astonishing standards in his career that anything short of outright domination attracts the vultures. In the post-Federer era, we forget that early round losses were once common for all-time greats. In 1990, Stefan Edberg won Wimbledon and was runner-up at the Australian Open, but lost his opening matches in Paris and New York. Pete Sampras was at his peak in 1998, but he failed to get past the third round in ten of the tournaments he entered that year.
Federer’s record makes those of his fellow legends look modest in comparison. He may not be as consistent as he was during the halcyon days of 2004 – 2007, but early exits at the hands of journeymen are not yet a matter of routine. We should allow him time to adjust to his new racket, rehabilitate his back and rediscover his confidence before putting him out to pasture. Until he starts losing more often than he wins, there is no conclusive evidence that Roger Federer is in decline.