Entering the U.S. Open, the Swiss champion’s venerable name doesn’t strike the same fear in opponents that it once did.
In a calamitous eight-week stretch that started in June with his second-round ouster at Wimbledon, where he was a seven-time winner and defending champion, Federer slipped from No. 3 in the world to No. 7, his lowest ranking since October 2002.
While he insisted he wouldn’t panic after the loss to then-No. 116 Sergiy Stakhovsky, Federer proceeded to switch to a bigger racket and enter two low-profile tournaments he normally skips, presumably seeking a boost in confidence.
Instead, he was bounced from both of those events by players ranked outside the top 50. Two weeks later he abandoned the larger racket, saying it was time, with the season’s final major looming, “to simplify everything” and revert to the equipment he knew best.
That raises the question, as the 2013 U.S. Open gets under way Monday in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., of whether the tournament will feature a resurgence of Federer’s brilliant career at age 32 or serve as its eulogy.
Federer dismissed the latter scenario following his shocking defeat at the All England club in June, saying, “I still have plans to play for many more years to come.”
But will Federer, who boasts a record 17 Grand Slam men’s singles titles and held the No. 1 ranking for 302 weeks, be able to tolerate competing if he slides much further down the world rankings? Will he take the same joy in the game and in the arduous process of preparing for matches?
It’s an open question in the mind of former champion John McEnroe, who won seven majors before retiring at 33 and doubts Federer will win another.
“He’s 32,” said McEnroe, 54, a commentator for ESPN and CBS. “He’s going to have to, at some stage, decide how bad he wants it if he does dip lower in the world. I doubt he’ll enjoy being in that spot.”
McEnroe’s younger brother Patrick is slightly more optimistic about Federer’s chances of winning another major.
“I would never underestimate Federer [or], in general, underestimate greatness,” said Patrick McEnroe, 47, the U.S. Tennis Association’s Director of Player Development, as well as an ESPN analyst. “I think there is certainly a chance he could pull it off. It’s not going to get any easier.”
In a sterling stretch from June 2005 to February 2010, in which Federer reached the final in18 of 19 Grand Slams, the Swiss maestro’s game represented the perfect union of offense and defense. He brandished the full range of strokes and the savvy to deploy them. His serve, though not the game’s most powerful, was a dangerous weapon nonetheless, delivered with precision and vexing spin and placement.
And he covered the court with seemingly effortless speed and fluidity, rarely forced to return a ball off-balance or in desperation.
Even Rafael Nadal, who first supplanted Federer at No. 1 in August 2008 and holds a 21-10 record against the Swiss, regards him as the game’s greatest player.
But the years are catching up to Federer, it appears, despite his ability to stay largely injury-free.
“The balance and the movement are not quite as Nureyev-like as they were in the past,” said John McEnroe, “so he’s reaching for more balls and therefore mis-hitting more shots.”
Federer also may have surrendered a psychological edge in experimenting with the larger racket at such a crucial time in the season.
At least that’s how Patrick McEnroe believes such a move would have played to him, decades ago, as a middle-of-the-pack contender who never reached the level of Federer nor John McEnroe.
“I think in the mentality of that great player, you’re sort of admitting, I’m not going to say ‘failure’ but that you need to do something differently. That’s really hard for a tennis player to do, because so much of what goes on in a tennis match is that self belief and confidence: Walking out on the court when your opponent feels that you feel like you’re unbeatable or you know how good you are.
“This is where I can relate. As a guy ranked 30 or 40 in the world, I would think, ‘Wow, Roger went to a different racket! Maybe I have a chance now! Maybe he doesn’t believe in what he’s doing.’ ”
But there’s no sign Federer’s bedrock belief in his game has been shaken or that he doesn’t have the stomach for battling back, even if he falls further behind.
Few athletes reach the top perch of their sport and must confront the peculiar pain of slipping from it. There is no single correct response.
American Andy Roddick decided well before he tumbled from the top 10 that he would retire once his ranking dipped beyond a certain point. And he followed through, stepping away at age 30 following last year’s U.S. Open, having fallen from the top 20.
Andre Agassi and Jimmy Connors chose to play on. And each reclaimed a moment of brilliance under the bright lights of the U.S. Open, with Agassi reaching the final at 35 and Connors storming into the semifinals at 39.
“Every match gives me more information to tell me if I’m on the right path or not,” Federer said earlier this month, insisting that he cared far more about raising his game than his ranking. “I’m a strong believer that I am on the right path right now. I just need to make sure that mentally I stay cool about it.”
Record Grand Slam men’s
Months since last Grand Slam singles title.
U.S. Open titles
(last came in 2008).
Grand Slam singles title in the past 43 months (2012 Wimbledon).