Roger Federer has dominated men’s tennis for way over a decade and with 17 Grand Slam titles to his name he may never be surpassed. Yet 2013 has proven a tumultuous year of realism and setbacks for the Swiss maestro, posing the question; just how much longer has he got left?
The 32 year old’s career is nothing short of astonishing. Breaking every record imaginable and completing the prestigious career ‘Grand Slam’ at the 2009 French Open, Federer is commonly regarded as the greatest player to ever grace the game. He developed possibly the most formidable sporting rivalry of the last two decades with Rafael Nadal and has managed to maintain, until the last few years, the emerging talents of the sport’s two new heavyweights; Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. Aside from his incredible feats, Federer’s application to the sport in terms of his technique and all round ability is second to none, effortlessly moving around the court and gracefully disposing of his opponents without appearing to break into sweat.
Yet, at an age well into his thirties and after a year of results which point to rapid decline, even the Swiss’ most ambitious fans must be starting to question what he has left to offer. There are numerous reasons that point to Federer’s drop to seventh in the world rankings; his lowest place for 11 years, but what is different about this year from the previous decade is that he has actually struggled with a recurring injury. Federer’s back has given him grief pretty much all year round, resulting in him pulling out of various US hard court tournaments over the Summer including the Masters 1000 tournament in Montreal.
Federer is never one to make excuses for poor performances, but his bad back certainly had an influence on his failure to pass the fourth round at either Wimbledon or the US Open. Until this year, Federer had always managed to restrict his schedule to the big events, in which he would usually exceed in, to allow his body to recover in time and prolong his career. He always had that advantage over Nadal who’s personal game and the excessive force on his body put extensive stress on his knees. Nadal, as a result, was pretty much absent from the tour for the entirety of 2012, whereas Federer’s record of reaching a remarkable 23 consecutive Grand Slam semi-finals highlights his ability to remain fit.
Another reason for Federer’s recent decline is the changing face of the game in which players of extreme fitness and groundstrokes seem to be surpassing that of the all-round player that the Swiss embodies. Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and even David Ferrer are possibly some of the best athletes in the world in a sport where points vary in length between a split second to a couple of minutes (Nadal and Djokovic had a 54 shot rally in the final at Flushing Meadows last month). Federer knows at his age he cannot allow himself to be engaged in long winded battles from the back of the court whereas these four, in particular, are capable of running for five sets and then replicating the feat two days later. That forces Federer into dictating the point himself and if his timing is off the result is a host of unforced errors and often a very disjointed performance.
His shock defeat in the second round at Wimbledon this year to Sergei Stakhovsky also potentially underlined a growing level of complacency from the former world number one as he was comprehensively beaten by the type of player he is used to disposing of in the blink of an eye. The Ukrainian outplayed him and his rather unique serve and volley style in the modern game completely outfoxed Federer whose astonishing record at Wimbledon now has a severe blip on it.
Andre Agassi played well into his thirties and even topped the world rankings at a similar age to Federer, but with the game now so orientated around fitness rather than technique the tennis purists will start to fear that Federer is well into the twilight of his career. Elegance and aesthetic beauty are not an integral part of the sport’s dynamics anymore and Federer’s inability to alter his game to that of a grinder like a Nadal, Djokovic or Murray is ultimately the reason for his performances taking a down turn this year. For the first time in over a decade the Swiss is struggling to qualify for the end of season ATP Finals in London (in which the World’s top 8 men compete) which really is a pointer to how his season has unfolded.
He is undoubtedly the greatest player in the open era and his record proves that, but if this year is anything to go by and his back problems linger, Federer’s common sense may kick in and it will be interesting to see what his attitude is at the end of the calendar. He has been the sport’s greatest ambassador; a man of six languages and extreme humility, making his decline all the more harder to take for tennis fans who surely desire to see him return to the top for one more year. Unfortunately, the levels being set by the world’s top three may not allow that to happen.