BOSTON — He is six years younger than Tiger Woods, the man with whom he is most often compared for their dominance of their respective sports over the past decade. But at just 28 years old, Swiss tennis star Roger Federer already seems to have reached as many crossroads as any Mississippi delta blues musician.
We who chronicle sports are always in a rush to crown the next great thing and too often show an unseemly haste to declare the demise of our greatest stars. Federer was first diagnosed as being in irreversible decline back in 2008 when, after reaching 10 consecutive finals at majors, he was ousted in the semis at the Australian Open. He followed up that “flop” by losing both the French Open and Wimbledon finals — and his number one world ranking — to the precocious and relentless Spaniard Rafael Nadal.
However, Federer salvaged the season by winning his fifth consecutive U.S. Open. And then in 2009 — with titles at both the French and Wimbledon — he not only reclaimed the number one ranking, but set a record with the 15th major championship of his career. Certainly nothing seemed amiss when he began 2010 by winning his record 16th Grand Slam title at the Australian Open.
But soon after, the tennis world began singing the Federer blues. He opens his Wimbledon defense this week having won just that one title back in January, his worst performance going into the hallowed grounds since he was a 20-year-old comer still two years away from his first major championship.
Since the Australian, his record streak of reaching the semi-finals at 23 consecutive majors ended in Paris and he then failed to win his Wimbledon tune-up, only his second defeat on grass in the past seven years. Some have suggest that supremacy in tennis demands a singular dedication and that fatherhood — with twin girls about to celebrate their first birthdays — has exacted a toll.
But the grass of Wimbledon has always proved a tonic for Federer. He treasures its history and traditions and covets a seventh men’s title that would tie Pete Sampras’ modern record. And he would like nothing better than for that triumph to come against Nadal, not because of any resentment of his younger rival, but out of respect bordering on reverence for their spirited rivalry.
Before folks write epitaphs for Federer’s career, there has to be somebody who can beat him at Wimbledon. Despite reclaiming the number one ranking after last year’s injury-plagued season, Nadal hasn’t demonstrated that he is completely back in form on any surface other than clay. Andy Murray can’t stand up to the pressure of fans’ desperate desire for a British man to finally win the title after 74 years. American hope Andy Roddick brought his A-game last year and still couldn't best him. As for Leyton Hewitt, who hadn’t defeated Federer in eight years before his upset victory in Halle, Germany earlier this month, well lightening isn’t going to strike twice.
All the naysayers will look even more foolish if Federer wins a sixth Wimbledon and then adds his sixth U.S. Open title in September. And if right now that doesn’t seem likely, it certainly doesn’t seem — at least not to me — unlikely either. Folks are making the mistake of comparing Federer to his younger self rather than to the field. That he is not the precision Swiss machine of a few years ago should not be equated with being finished.
In recent decades, a number of champions — Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi and Sampras — competed successfully into their 30s and won major titles in their fourth decade. Federer may not be destined to dominate his sport any longer and there likely will be more unexpected stumbles. But I see no reason that he can’t win a few more majors before he hangs up his Wilson, putting his record total out of anybody’s reach. Ever!