Thursday, 14 July 2011

Is Federer finished?

After the six-time champion’s second quarter-final defeat in a row at Wimbledon, many are now claiming that Roger Federer’s time at the top is almost up. But the truth is the Swiss maestro has been a level below the sport’s best for the last 18 months. 

Roger Federer is still one of the best players in the game. Although he turns 30 next month, the 16-time grand slam champion and family man still lives for tennis. He appears more relaxed than he used to, perhaps down to his family life, which attitude played a big part in his remarkable run of form at the French Open this year, and, admirably, his love for the game and appetite for success has not waned. While his age and desire are not factors in speculation over his decline, it’s on the court where Federer has lost something.

Typically so ruthless when in a winning position, as possibly the greatest front-runner the game has ever seen, his loss to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at Wimbedon was the Swiss’ first ever defeat from leading two sets to love. His record prior to that was an astonishing 178-0. One the one hand, that record surely had to end at some stage. On the other hand, it was a moment highly symbolic of Federer's past year and a half. 

Federer in 2005. Will he lift the Wimbledon trophy again? (Getty Images Photo / Mike Hewitt)

There was a time when if he had a lead, and was into his groove, the rest of the field, perhaps excluding Rafael Nadal, wouldn’t have a chance of making a comeback. The explosive but inconsistent talent Tsonga is the game’s archetypal “on his day he can beat anyone” player. But the thing about the world’s best at the moment, perhaps the main reason why they are so completely dominant, is the extra level they possess in their armoury (physically, mentally and in terms of their game) to make sure the likes of Tsonga never have their day against the very best.

And these days they so rarely do. It is one of the defining features of the modern game. It is why ‘bogey players’ are so few and far between for the top three, and why Juan Martín Del Potro is the only player apart from Federer, Nadal and Novak Djokovic to win a major since Marat Safin in 2005. But now Federer is beatable by someone on their day. His form has dipped to the level where he can now be beaten by those in the chasing pack. He is not at the very top of the sport any more.

Some will look at his victory over Djokovic at the French Open, the new world number one’s only defeat of 2011 to date, as evidence for the Swiss still being at the top of the sport and a prime contender for all the majors. Federer was magical against Djokovic. Perfect both tactically and in shot-making, he produced perhaps the greatest performance of his career; I certainly think it might have been. That said, rather than signalling the return of the king, the victory struck me as Federer opening a time portal, recreating the magic of years past, if just for a moment, as though it were from a movie, or that “what I wouldn’t give to relive...” memory for any football fan. 

Because for the rest of the time, Federer, against high quality opponents, makes too many errors and drops his level too often compared to the consistent brilliance of Nadal and Djokovic. At one end of the scale, Federer’s overall game, certainly in terms of consistency, doesn’t measure up to the game’s best any more. At the other end, his errors, inconsistency and occasional loss of focus make him far more susceptible to defeats by lower-ranked players, suffering quarter-final defeats at the last two Wimbledons. After his astonishing run of 23 consecutive semi-finals (or better) in slams, Federer has now been knocked out in the quarters in three of his last six, and made only one final during that time. To call Federer a favourite for every major he enters at present would be to completely belie his form over the past 18 months. 

And in future majors, for instance the US Open at the end of August, he may enter as one of the leading contenders, given the stranglehold the top three have had on the major titles. But in order to win it he will have to produce a standard of tennis over the length of a tournament which we simply haven’t seen for him in a long time, save his victory over Djokovic this year. At this stage, I see any the rest of the top four as likelier winners of the US Open. 

Roger Federer is still one of the leading forces to be reckoned with in grand slams, although much of that is down to the dominance of himself, Nadal and Djokovic, that so few players have what it takes to win one. But on the question of whether he can be a serious contender to win them anymore, his current game would suggest that might now be beyond him. 

There may yet be one or two glimpses of the Federer of old still to come, just as we saw at the French Open. I have followed Federer’s career and he is probably the main reason I love the sport so much. How great it would be to see arguably the greatest player in the sport’s history roll back the years just once more. What I wouldn’t give to relive that.

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