Going? Going? not quite gone!

Roger Federer is still not ready to throw in the towel.-AP

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have witnessed tough times but it’s hard to claim with conviction that they’re experiencing irreversible decline. Their biggest threats are still expected to be Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. For now, the kings are alive and well. By Priyansh.

“Wawrinka opened the doors for us from the ‘second’ line. And I think most of the guys have now bigger belief that they can do it on the Grand Slams. I think it’s going to be extremely interesting for the next several, for sure, Grand Slams.”

After defeating Roger Federer in the U.S. Open semifinals, Marin Cilic rushed through the door opened by the former’s compatriot. Even before his commanding win over Kei Nishikori in the final, the Croat felt confident enough to claim that a new order could destabilise the old.

Perhaps, he was oblivious of the comments uttered by Federer a few minutes before.

“You create your stories. You said the same in Australia, everybody; and then we know what happened at the French Open final, Wimbledon final. But this is another chance for you guys, you know. So you should write what you want.”

The testy manner of Federer’s exchange with a journalist could be regarded as frustrated remarks after an overwhelming loss. Or they could be seen as the Swiss establishing his and his long-standing rivals’ authority over the keys to the open door.

One doesn’t need to be in agreement with Federer’s views to realise how tiresome the decline narrative has become. At the 2008 Australian Open, when Novak Djokovic outclassed the Swiss in straight sets, his mother Dijana famously proclaimed, “The king is dead. Long live the king.” Since then, almost every Federer defeat at a Slam is met with a not too dissimilar response.

If viewed solely through the prism of Grand Slam title wins — which will be a highly unfair criterion —one will certainly find a reason to be disappointed by the 33-year-old’s display. Federer has won only two out of the last 20 Slams. In this time, he lost in two finals and eight semifinals.

To reach the last four in 12 of the last 20 major championships, though, is no mean feat. Judged by Federer’s lofty pre-2008 standards, these numbers may seem ordinary but rarely has someone displayed such consistency — that most elusive of sporting attributes — in men’s tennis. Moreover, 2014 represents progress for Federer.

The 17-time Grand Slam singles champion had resolved his back problems and switched to a larger racquet by the start of the year. While it’s debatable how much Stefan Edberg’s appointment has held, Federer’s serving has acquired greater potency when compared to last year. His first and second serve win numbers are up by two percent each. The new racquet has a bigger sweet spot and the returns are showing.

When he sealed Switzerland’s place in the 2014 Davis Cup final, Federer’s win percentage for the year stood at 84.84. In 2013, it was 72.58 percent.

ANDY MURRAY AND NOVAK DJOKOVIC... the main rivals for Federer and Nadal.-AP

The numbers point to a resurgent Federer. However, he’s 33 and one would expect that age will only become a bigger obstacle with time. The 18th Grand Slam title doesn’t seem any closer. But there’s no questioning Federer’s motivation to play top-level tennis. If anything, it was liberating to witness him at different junctures this season.

The Swiss, quite obviously, wouldn’t want to witness Rafael Nadal scaling his record of 17 Grand Slam titles. The Spaniard is three championships away from equalling Federer. If he stays fit, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Nadal placing the 18th Grand Slam trophy in his cabinet.

However, many seem to reckon that it’s a big if. Nadal’s frequent battles with injuries almost ensure that he can’t feature at all the Grand Slams anymore. Even when he does, there’s the suspicion that he could break down anytime.

Unfortunately for Nadal, his reputation has diminished in his absence. In the time the Spaniard spends away from the circuit, the question on his ability to return strongly becomes more vexed with every passing week. Yet, not many seem to account for his previous comebacks that have been mostly successful.

Admittedly, Nadal doesn’t have much time on his hands. The Spaniard is already 28 and it’s tough to see how he can last more than a couple of seasons. Yet, even five years ago, there were similar worries over Nadal’s long-term future.

“Tennis has changed a great deal in recent years. We used to talk about injuries: the elbow, the shoulder, the wrist. But in recent years, with the change in equipment materials — the rackets, mostly, but also the strings — we have whole new pathologies. Everything’s faster. You’re hitting the ball faster and harder, and in new positions, which create problems with the spine, the knees, even the hips,” Angel Ruiz-Cotorro, Nadal’s doctor, told The New York Times in 2009.

But Nadal’s comments to the same newspaper back then were remarkable for their defiance. “They were saying this three years ago, that I couldn’t last. And after four years, I’m better than I ever was. This irritates me, no? I’m tired of people telling me I can’t go on playing like this. In the end this is what makes me win, lose, everything. I can’t control how I play. I want to keep getting better. And the most important part is the head.”

There’s nothing to suggest he has lost his head yet. A 44-8 record this year bears testimony to his continuing excellence.

At separate moments in the 2014 U.S. Open final, shouts of “Allez, Roger!” and “Vamos Rafa!” were heard. It’s not only their enduring legacy that makes Federer and Nadal popular; their undying consistency ensures that they are never far away from the silverware.

Wawrinka, Cilic, Nishikori and a few others have threatened to upstage the established order in 2014. They succeeded twice this year, yet none of them have threatened frequently enough. It’s noteworthy that Wawrinka and Cilic had won only ATP 250 events (the lowest level on the main circuit) before their Grand Slam triumphs. The former won just the Monte Carlo Masters after his success in Australia.

Hence, the threat to the dominant order might have been overstated. Nadal and Federer have witnessed tough times but it’s tough to claim with conviction that they’re experiencing irreversible decline. Their biggest threats are still expected to be Djokovic and Andy Murray. For now, the kings are alive and well.