Roger Federer: where does he stand now?

While Roger Federer may not be able to meet stratospheric levels of expectations in the future, there can be little doubt that the Swiss maestro would be able to add a few more Grand Slam titles to his collection, writes Nirmal Shekar.

There were moments during Roger Federer’s quarterfinal and semifinal matches at last month’s Australian Open championship when it was difficult to resist the temptation to get up from your ringside seat and leave the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne Park, or, in the least, to shut your eyes tight for a few minutes hoping to see the magic return — almost magically — to the great man’s racquet hand when you opened them.

As it turned out, it was the magician himself who packed his bags two full days ahead of schedule, leaving you with the distinct impression that you had been conned into watching a Federer look-alike.

It was a bit like trying to come to terms with Marlon Brando’s performance in ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau’, shaking your head and wondering where the genius of such timeless epics as ‘On the Waterfront’ and ‘The Godfather’ was gone.

It was an eerie feeling. Your eyes said it was Federer and the mind concurred. But the heart chose to disagree because our emotions play a great part as we take in the works of gifted performers.

Of course, when you have spent over three full decades watching sport at the highest level, such an experience is unlikely to be a novelty; yet, whatever you have gone through in the past does little to dilute the intensity of the feeling.

So, it is from a safe distance of a couple of weeks after the events — a time, hopefully, when the anarchy of wildly rushing brain chemicals has been reined in — that the question may be asked: how significant will Melbourne-2008 turn out to be in Federer’s career?

Was it a forgettable one-off event that merely ended his remarkable — perhaps unmatchable — 10-tournament Grand Slam streak of not losing before the finals? Or is it something that is relevant to his quest to become the most successful Grand Slam champion of all times, beating Pete Sampras’s record of 14 major titles?

And, who would have imagined when the year dawned that we would be contemplating such posers a few weeks on!

“Life is a strange matter. A buffoon may be fatal to it,” wrote the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Sport, if anything, is an even stranger business.

Then again, if all this seems like a clear case of over-reaction, then Federer has only himself to blame. For, the Swiss maestro has got us used to such virtuoso feats of athletic and artistic achievements on a tennis court that the moment we find him marginally below his customary exalted level, we begin to panic.

Perhaps, through the rest of this year and the seasons to come, the great man might force us to look back and then laugh at ourselves for having raised these questions after one Grand Slam ‘failure’.

Some might even point to the world champion’s semifinal loss at Melbourne Park in 2005 and recall how he rebounded from that defeat to set out on that magic streak.

But then, Federer was 23 then and he was close to his best when he lost a thrilling five-setter to an inspired Marat Safin. Three years on, his defeat at the hands of Novak Djokovic hardly bears comparison.

The point to be considered here is this: how much of Federer’s poor form at the Australian Open was the result of his illness the week before the start of the championship? Perhaps more than the great man was willing to admit.

It was clear that Federer was fractionally slower getting to the balls; and, in a game that is as wonderfully fine-tuned as his, this can make the sort of difference that poor acoustics might to a staging of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

Then again, at the mental level, the rise of Djokovic and, more importantly, the 20-year-old Serb’s ability to raise his game in crunch situations — something that was clearly evident in the semifinal contest — might raise a few questions in Federer’s mind.

In sport at the highest levels, a dollop of worry here, a semblance of doubt there, and suddenly the armour of invincibility slips away from its long-time owner. Decline often begins after a season of Himalayan highs.

In 1984, John McEnroe, one of the most gifted players the game has ever seen, conjured up a dazzling brand of winning tennis that few men might be able to dream of, and fewer still might actually be able to match.

The left-handed New Yorker lost two matches the whole year, and only one — to Ivan Lendl in the French Open final where McEnroe was well ahead before losing his way — of significance. A year on, after going down to Kevin Curren at Wimbledon and to Brad Gilbert in the U.S. Open, McEnroe departed on a sabbatical. Although he came back, the great shotmaker was never the same player again.

But then, as individuals McEnroe and Federer are far apart and the issues that triggered the American’s decline are not the ones that the Swiss maestro might ever need to deal with. And making predictions about a great champion’s descent is a dangerous business.

Yet, it is conceivable that the regal felicity with which he won a dozen Grand Slam titles might elude Federer now and again the rest of the way. If Djokovic managed to breach Fortress Federer successfully in Melbourne, it was not only because the Serb has seemingly bridged the unbridgeable — the gap between HRH Federer and his challengers — but also because the master’s defences were down.

However quickly the Djokovics and the Nadals improve their games it is highly unlikely that they will ever get to match or surpass the great man on hard courts and grass if Federer is at his best.

While the loss to Djokovic was indeed a disappointment, Federer is not going to let that weigh him down too much as he focuses on the road ahead.

“It is important to look forward. People, I think, are talking like I lost in the second round or something,” Federer said recently in a conference call to promote his March 10 exhibition match against Sampras at Madison Square Garden.

Then again, as he himself pointed out in Melbourne, the man who has occupied the top slot since February 2, 2004, has “created a monster.” We expect him to win every major — except perhaps the French — he plays in; and we expect him to do it in his inimitable style.

While such stratospheric levels of expectations may not be met in the future, there can be little doubt that Federer would be able to add a few more Grand Slam titles to his collection.

My own belief is, the great Swiss would have failed to do justice to his marvellous gifts if he fell short of 18 Grand Slam titles — four more than Sampras’ record tally.

Then again, the days of overwhelming dominance may soon come to an end. And the great aristocrat may have to sweat and toil a little more than he has been used to in the last four years to add to the dozen majors in his bag.