Mortal Federer still the man?
For a guy who had just been knocked out of a major tournament, Roger Federer seemed remarkably composed. For a 16-time Grand Slam singles champion, he was almost jovial.
The first question in his postmatch interview following a loss to Robin Soderling in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros concerned his level of disappointment.
"Well, disappointed to a certain degree," Federer answered. "I don't think I played a bad match, so it's easier to go out this way. I thought he came up with some great tennis. It's a touch easier to digest this way."
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He even joked when the topic of his 23 consecutive Grand Slam semifinals appearances -- an all-time streak ended by Soderling -- came up.
"It was a great run," Federer said. "Now I've got the quarterfinal streak going, I guess."
When the assembled media laughed, Federer even smiled.
This is the place where Federer, approaching the age of 29, finds himself these days. He's nearing the end of a grand career, and he seems to have it all in perspective. How many more times will he tee it up in a major? The best guess would be 10, through 2012, or perhaps 14 if he wants to play through to the age of 32.
Federer knows that the 2009 French Open title will likely remain the only red-clay major on his championship résumé. The best possibilities will always be Wimbledon -- which opens next Monday -- and the U.S. Open.
He has won six of the past seven Wimbledon crowns and been to the past seven finals. With Federer seeded first and Rafael Nadal second, there is no compelling reason (aside from Andy Roddick?) to think the Swiss player won't make it eight consecutive finals. A win at the All England Club would lift Federer into a tie with Pete Sampras for most titles there. Federer has also won five of the past six titles at the U.S. Open, losing in last year's final to Juan Martin del Potro.
"I don't see anything specific in his form," said Patrick McEnroe, the U.S. Davis Cup captain. "But I do get the sense he might be ripe for an upset at Wimbledon this year. We all know his record at Wimbledon [51-5], but he might get picked off on the way to [the] final."
Since breaking through at Wimbledon in 2003, Federer has won 16 of the 28 Grand Slam singles titles. Put another way, Federer has won four more majors in that span than all the other male players combined. A few more wins in these second-half Slams and Federer can push his all-time total well beyond the reach of anyone.
"I don't see anything different," said ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert, who coached Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Andy Murray. "More than anything, day in and day out, he's maybe not as sharp. It's like when you hit .387 every year, and now you're a .347 hitter. For anybody else, it's off the charts, but at .347, he's not doing the same thing.
"He wins here, and he's having a monster season. Usually, it's win one major in a year, and it's a great year. Two is off the chart. This would be two out of three. Or, if he wins the U.S. Open, that would be two more big ones to the total. That's crazy for a guy who's almost 29."
Among the collateral damage of that loss to Soderling in Paris was Federer's No. 1 ranking. Federer has been at the top for 285 weeks of his career, one short of Pete Sampras' record. It could be a while before Federer catches him; Nadal has only 1,260 points to defend from the past two majors and two U.S. hard-court Masters 1000 events, while Federer has 4,380 points on his platter.
This doesn't seem to trouble Federer, who spoke with reporters after he arrived in Halle, Germany.
"We've gotten accustomed to me or Rafa, but especially me, at No. 1 in the world, it's pretty easy to stay at the top, and it's something that comes very naturally almost," Federer said. "But it's not if you look how quickly things change.
"It's great for the media because they make a big, huge deal out of the rankings. Because, today he's great, like Rafa last year. Everything before the French he was incredible. One and a half months later, he doesn't have a French or Wimbledon title anymore and people start like, 'Will he ever come back? Will he ever play tennis again after his knee problems.' But all he did is miss six weeks of tennis and they make a huge deal out of it."
Federer, of course, knows all about this kind of scrutiny.
After winning the Australian Open, he has failed to win another tournament -- and so, this will be the first time in nine years that he comes into Wimbledon without multiple titles in a single season. The man who went four straight seasons (2004-07) has become a little more mortal; his loss in the final at Halle was already his eighth of the season.
The three-set defeat was typical of the Federer we have seen in recent years. After losing to Marcos Baghdatis, Tomas Berdych, Ernests Gulbis and Albert Montanes earlier this season, Federer surprisingly lost to gritty Australian Lleyton Hewitt, a man he had beaten 15 straight times. Federer had compiled a 76-1 record in grass-court matches since 2003, but this brought his win percentage down to a tragic .974.
"I guess my key shots weren't quite there, if you break it down brutally," Federer said afterward. "My serve and my forehand, when I really needed it, they we're quite there enough."
Wimbledon, then, will provide some answers to the questions swirling in the tennis community.
McEnroe, citing the personal loss streaks ended this season by Hewitt (0-15) and Baghdatis (0-6), senses that Federer's aura of invincibility might be coming to an end.
"At some point, you just can't turn it on and off, flip the switch," McEnroe said. "At some point, you lose in those non-majors and people will start to think they can beat you. Look at the way Soderling played Roger in Paris. I think after that first set he felt like, 'Hey, I can beat this guy.'
"Obviously, Roger's a lot more comfortable on grass, but to just all of a sudden find magic at your fingers has to become more elusive at some point. If you're Roddick -- who could play him in the quarters -- you've got to think you have a shot. Not as many players can threaten Roger on grass, but there are some big hitters that, in the fourth round, might just think they can take him out."
Clearly, Federer is not the dominant player he once was, but is he still good enough to win his favorite tournament?
"It's unfortunate not coming through today," he said in Halle, "but I think my level of play is fine. This loss doesn't worry me in any way. I'm excited about next week."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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