13 May 2013

Is Roger Federer Finally on the Decline?

by Ewan McQueen

Roger Federer is easily one of the greatest men to ever pick up a tennis racket. Debate will probably rage until the end of time about whether he is the best ever, but with 17 Grand Slams to his name, the Swiss superstar is the most successful player of all time in that regard.

However, he is now 31 and slowly but surely Federer is finding it trickier to deal with the rigours that every tennis season brings. In 2013 so far, he has failed to reach a final and most recently he lost to Japanese youngster Kei Nishikori in the third round of the Madrid Masters.

Over the course of a 15-year professional career Federer has had a truly remarkable injury record. He has never had a major injury to speak of and when he pulled out of the Qatar Open in January this year, it was only the second time he has ever withdrawn from a tournament. Fitness might not be a major concern (he does have a troublesome back), but his form and increasing lack of invincibility over opponents do present a very real question; will Roger Federer ever win another Grand Slam tournament?

It has to be said that Federer hasn’t just shown signs of decline this year, but now we could well be seeing the final days of the greatest tennis player of the last decade. From 2003-2007, Federer was almost invincible, winning Wimbledon five times in a row, as well as winning the US Open four times and three Australian Opens. Only at the French Open, did he look beatable where Rafael Nadal always had the better of him. Then, two men in the form of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray started to emerge and challenge the Federer-Nadal dominance. Argentine Juan Martin Del Potro also got in on the act when he defeated Federer in the 2009 US Open final.

However, Federer’s longevity has been seriously impressive. He has reached at least the quarter final of every Grand Slam since being knocked out of the French Open in the third round in 2004. And last year he impressively won Wimbledon, beating Murray in the final and promptly regained the number one spot just before his 31st birthday. And he has never been out of the top five of the World Rankings since June 2003.

He cannot go on forever though and recent results, the return of Nadal from injury, Djokovic and Murray hitting their peak and other players coming to the fore, suggest he will have a hard time ever being number one again.

Let’s take a look at his semi-final defeat against Andy Murray at the Australian Open in January. Beforehand, most people accepted the match would be an even one, with Murray coming off the back of a superb end to 2012, but he had never beaten Federer in a Grand Slam match. What followed was a somewhat strange match. The history books will show a five-set match, but in truth watching at home, I couldn’t believe it went to five sets. It was almost completely one-sided in Murray’s favour and if he hadn’t made errors in a couple of tie-breaks, he would have won comfortably.

From then on, Federer has struggled to a huge extent and when you look at his results from last year at this stage, it is hard not to point to a more serious decline. Last year, he won tournaments in Rotterdam, Dubai, Indian Wells and Madrid in the first few months of the year. This year his best result is a semi-final in Dubai. The loss to 22 year-old Nishikori this week in Madrid would have been unthinkable in recent years. Now young players have lost their sense of fear against him. And it isn’t just young players.

Talents such as Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer, Jo Wilfried Tsonga and Federer’s fellow countryman Stanislas Wawrinka are seizing opportunities this season they might not have sensed were there before. Whilst Berdych and Tsonga have both beaten Federer at Wimbledon in recent years, they now feel they can take a step further and possibly win a Grand Slam at his expense. Indeed, Wawrinka in particular looks in great form as the French Open comes on the horizon having reached the final of the Madrid Masters this week.

Federer’s best chance of a Grand Slam will come at Wimbledon where he can still cope with the pace the game is played at on that surface. On the hard-courts players like Djokovic, Murray, Nadal and the others mentioned in the paragraph above now feel they can give him the run-around at the Australian and US Open. And with Nadal looking strong, surely Federer cannot win the French Open.

Federer has been written off many times before. Indeed, I wrote him off as far back as 2009 when Nadal beat him in that year's Australian Open final. Somehow though, this time it feels far more real. With young talents like Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov coming through and a host of players wanting to win a slam, it won’t get any easier for Federer in the months and years to come.

I don’t think Federer will fall into a terminal decline. He could well keep up that quarter final record at the Grand Slams for a while yet, though there is a high possibility that record could fall at the French Open in a few weeks. He might even reach a Grand Slam final again, as Andre Agassi did at the age of 35 in 2005.

Enjoy Federer while you can though tennis fans. His best days are certainly behind him.

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