The whispers have been there since 207 when he lost consecutive matches to Guillermo Canas. Is Federer getting old? Has he passed his prime? Has he lost his drive to win? Federer has won hundreds of matches and six Slams since then, but the whispers still remain. Less than one short month ago, Federer fell out of the top 3 for the first time since 2003. His consistency has been very slowly slipping all year and he has not won a Slam since the Australian Open in 2010. So the question needs to be asked: are these whispers legitimate?
On some level, Federer will always draw attention and criticism like this. He is a very polarizing athlete. There are many, many fans who absolutely love him. He is one of the most famous and popular athletes that the World has seen in any sport in recent years. On the other hand, there is a fairly vocal substantial minority of tennis fans who, for a variety of reasons, don’t like Federer. Some have issues with his on-court demeanor, others feel he is too smug and cocky, and still others just think that he is far too successful and resent it. So it’s understandable why Federer supporters would be concerned that he is beginning his decline and detractors would be hoping for it.
So is Federer declining? He certainly is no longer as consistent as he was in the earlier stages of his career. His absolute mastery of the tennis racket still shines through at times, but errors and poor footwork have crept more and more into his game as the years have progressed. I don’t think that anyone but the most blindly homeristic fan can deny that. We still see glimpses of the Maestro that Federer once was, but it’s not there almost every match like it was back in 2006.
The game has also caught up to him. 8 years ago the biggest hitters on tour couldn’t get anything past Federer. Andy Roddick, who had the best serve and one of the best forehands on tour for quite a while, was absolutely dominated by Federer throughout their careers. Now, however, the bigger hitters really give Federer trouble and can just hit him off the court when their games are on. Also, we have seen players like Nadal and Djokovic beat Federer (sometimes with relative ease) in recent years. The other top players on tour have been improving rapidly, and Federer hasn’t been improving fast enough to completely keep up with them.
Still, though, Federer is #4 in the World for a reason. The very top players may have managed to catch up to Federer, but no one else has. There are big hitters in the top 10 that manage to beat him sometimes and at least trouble him consistently, but Federer is still the favorite in every match against these players. Players like Tsonga, Berdych, and Del Potro may be able to trouble Federer more than lower players on tour, but not even they can beat him consistently. Of players not in the top 3, only David Nalbandian (in 2002-3) has won more than two consecutive matches against Federer.
And to those who say that Federer has lost a gear overall, he has clearly shown us these past few weeks that it’s just not true (or, not completely true). Federer is still probably the best player in the world on a fast indoor hard court. He is nearly unstoppable on this surface. In the Basel final two weeks ago he showed a level that most of us haven’t seen from Federer in a while. Then again, at times in Bercy this week Federer played very poorly. That’s the issue with today’s Federer. He still probably has the most raw talent of anyone on tour. The consistency and mental fortitude that he built his career in just isn’t always there anymore.
Unfortunately for Federer, none of the Grand Slams are played on a surface similar to this. Federer is still the best player in the world on a fast indoor hard surface (though I guess we’ll find out in London if Djokovic is now better than him on this surface-assuming that Djokovic is healthy). But it has been clearly shown in recent years that on a surface like the Australian and US Opens that Djokovic can now outplay Federer, and Federer has been behind Nadal on clay and grass since 2008.
Also, the ATP has been consistently slowing down the courts all over tour. The ITF has been doing the same to the Slams. Federer has still done very well with the Slams slowing down, but it’s hard to argue with the fact that, generally, the faster the court is the better Federer is. So are the whispers legitimate? Is Federer slowing down? Certainly, he is nowhere near as consistent as he once was and there are other players catching up to him. But to say that he is on his way out and can no longer compete is, in my opinion, just wishful thinking.
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