Roger Federer's legacy hangs in the balance.
Here’s what Roger Federer is facing in the next two weeks at the Wimbledon Lawn and Tennis club:
He is a sixteen-time grand slam champion and one of only five men to complete the career slam of winning all four tournaments. I would list all of his accomplishments over the last seven years of his reign but I’m not prepared to write a novel yet. Federer without question was last decade’s grand champion. He was the most dominant athlete in the world, more than Lance Armstrong (its cycling… don’t get me started) and more than Tiger Woods.
The reason I have him ranked higher than Tiger is that Golf is such a fluky sport. Anyone can win any given week if one of the world’s best players has a bad round of golf.
Tennis is the ultimate singular sport. There’s no caddie to tell you what racket to use and you can’t call timeout to stop momentum—it is you and your opponent and nothing else, and for the last seven years no one has made his opponents look as novice as Roger Federer.
Federer’s greatness came at a time when tennis was in transition from the Sampras-Agassi era when it was at unparraled heights. For a good three year stretch everyone from Marat Safin, Patrick Rafter and Lleyton Hewitt attempted to gain control of the circuit but to no avail. Then when Federer won the first of his six Wimbledon titles in 2003 the sport had finally gained its new great one. It gained a player that toyed with his opponents and took advantage of their brute strength with his perfect precision and elegant play, his drop shots were like poetry, and his backhands were like ballet. He was Sampras 2.0 without any competition.
You know the number from his era: 23 straight semi final appearances, 22 grand slam finals matches, 62 tournament wins, 55 million in earnings, one gold medal. In the last seven years the only player that comes close to Federer is the man that has become the biggest thorn in his side, Rafael Nadal. Even in that regard Nadal has won 5 French Opens and hasn’t found the same success in other slams like Federer though he has won the Australian Open last year and Wimbledon in 2008.
Yet the only number that matters now to Federer is 7. 7 is the number that belongs to Pete Sampras. 7 being the number of Wimbledon titles that Sampras has won, the most all time in the sport’s version of the World Series. Though Sampras never won the career slam (failing to win the French Open) , with those seven Wimbledon Crowns he is still considered by some to be the best ever even though Federer has two more overall slam titles.
If Federer wins this tournament there will be no more debate, he will be the greatest to ever play the game. To match the immortal Sampras in titles in London and leave him in the rearview in overall Slam titles would give little doubt as to judge who the greatest ever is. It’s all that Federer has left to accomplish in his career, well that and gain one more week at number one to pass Sampras as the leader in that category (both men have been number one for 285 weeks).
So as yesterday’s match began you understand what Federer was up against, history and that’s it. He’s beaten everyone from this era time and time again and had nothing to gain; this is all that’s left. Afterwards he can ride into the sunset and hear those stories that we love to hear about who win in a winner take all match between him, Bjorn Borg and Sampras.
Then as the match with Columbian Alejandro Palla began to unfold I began to realize something else about Federer. He isn’t just facing the Legend of Pistol Pete; Roger Federer is now in a battle with something greater than immortality and something that he has been dodging at a great rate for longer than the average tennis player…
The end of his run
His struggles against Alejando Falla might be a sign of things to come.
Roger Federer will be 29 when the U.S. Open starts in two months. For you and I that’s still the beginning stages of adulthood where we are either having kids or deciding when to have them. It’s a time where it’s still ok to go out and get wasted and pass out on your couch at 3am (if you’re single of course). However in tennis years 29 is like a mid-thirties shooting guard in the NBA (a-hem Ray Allen). You’re either breaking down, on your way out or have cashed out with no return.
Granted guys like Jimmy Connors and Sampras have won titles at older ages, Sampras won his last Wimbledon title at 29 coincidentally, but by the time they hit those ages they weren’t the dominant forces on the court that they once were.
Many have tried to predict the end of Federer’s run as early as 2008 when it seemed the Rafa had caught and passed him by defeating Federer at the French and Wimbledon. Many said that it would be a matter of time before Federer finally succumbs to father time and lose his form, yet since those predictions Federer has won each Grand Slam event and regained number one in the world including this year’s Aussie Open.
Yet the signs are there, his play this year has been less than stellar. The Aussie Open is his only title this year. He’s lost in the fourth round or earlier in three tournaments including a second round ousting in Italy this year. He ranks 26th on the tour in first serve points won and 46th in converted break points. Plus the simple fact that he doesn’t dominate opponents like he used to; he’s 27-8 this year already passing his total for losses in 2007 when he won 3 slams and 7 titles total. He’s four losses away from match his total from last year as well.
Then there is his on court performance. Look at the Palla match. Federer had his serve broken twice in the first two sets by the inferior Palla. He looked shaky for the first four sets as Palla had several opportunities to serve for the match but faltered. Eventually Federer did pull it together for a fifth set spanking, but the first four sets were more than enough proof that Federer’s dominant reign may finally be at an end.
That makes this quest for Wimbledon immortality even more important—this very well could be Federer’s last chance to gain Wimbledon gold ever. At the rate that he’s at Federer would slip in the rankings and by next year be in the mid to late top ten, possibly drawing a tougher opponent at an earlier time. With a returning Juan Martin Del Potro and a plethora of emerging talent we may be seeing Federer make early exits from Wimbledon and other events sooner and more often.
Also with the way that Rafa has been playing since his knee injury, Federer would stand no shot against him in a final matchup if it were too take place. Right now it’s not farfetched to say that Rafa is the best player in the game and that the game could very well be in his hands. (Also Nadal does have 7 slams, 9 behind Federer. If he wins Wimbledon then he’s only half way to Federer’s 16 at age 24. Just some food for thought).
So over the next two weeks keep these things in mind as you watch Federer. Understand his quest to best Sampras once and for all in all categories. Watch him still perform beautiful passes and drop shots on unsuspecting opponents as he marches to immortality. Yet don’t be surprised if he gets bounced earlier than expected. It happens to every great player, eventually the wear and tear catches up to you and there’s nothing you can do about it. Federer has dazzled us with his brilliance for years, but like all good things, it has to end. As a fan I just hope he can hold it off for thirteen days and gain one last piece of hardware before it’s all over.