COMMENTARY: The rise and fall of a giant

Many of us thought Roger Federer was done. After appearing in a record 10 grand slam finals in a row and spending an unprecedented 237 weeks as the world’s top-ranked tennis player, tennis fans were shocked when Federer failed to advance past the semifinals of the Australian Open this past January. Unsurprisingly, Federer went on to lose in the finals of the French Open, as he had the past two years, but people who thought the Australian Open may have been a fluke were forced to jump ship when Federer lost in the final match at Wimbledon, where he had won the past five years on the grass surface, making him seem unstoppable.

All things pointed to Federer being over the hill after Wimbledon. But one could argue that as early as 2007’s U.S. Open men’s final, there were signs of men’s tennis catching up to Federer. Although he defeated upstart Novak Djokovic, the 20-year-old Serbian who was the youngest player to reach the U.S. Open final since Pete Sampras at the age of 19, in three sets that final, Djokovic pushed Federer’s buttons in a match that seemed like it could go either way for some time. Although many did not believe it, some sensed that Federer’s aura of invincibility was beginning to diminish.

And diminish it did in the 2008 Australian Open, when Djokovic not only took down Federer in the semifinals, but did so in straight sets. Federer revealed afterward that he was suffering from mononucleosis, an excuse that may have cleared him from his Australian Open loss, but nothing could excuse him from losing Wimbledon five months later. Rafael Nadal, a clay-court specialist who has owned the French Open the last four years, walked onto Federer’s turf and took away the grass prince’s crown in a grueling five-set match that many consider to have been the greatest tennis match ever. That match may have marked the beginning of the downfall of the most talented person to ever hold a tennis racket, which only added to the intrigue.

Federer’s slam-less year proved to get even worse when he was defeated in the quarterfinals of the singles tournament in the Beijing Olympics, getting defeated by American James Blake in straight sets. Soon afterward, Federer conceded his number-one ranking for the first time in four and a half years to rival Nadal.

The U.S. Open that concluded one week ago, the last of the four grand slams in the calendar year, was Federer’s last chance to rebound and prove his critics wrong. Federer rose to the challenge, dropping just three sets en route to his fifth straight U.S. Open victory. Federer looked far from his immaculate self, however. Two of his dropped sets came against 28th-seeded Russian Igor Andreev, who nearly ousted Federer in the fourth round in a five-set performance that ended 6–7, 7–6, 6–3, 3–6, 6–3 in favor of Federer. Although in the 2008 U.S. Open, Federer showed extended periods of his past brilliance, faltering play uncharacteristic of the great tennis champion usually interrupted them. Federer did end the year with a statement, but his ranking remained number two at the end of what many thought would be Federer’s year to win all four slams.

Federer put it best after his semifinal loss in the Australian Open, realizing that he had “created a monster, so I know I need to always win every tournament.” Federer went on to state “semis is still pretty good,” which would be the true for most tennis players. Winning a grand slam final and losing to the eventual champ in the other three would be remarkable for anyone else not named Federer. But we are talking about a player who has had one of the most dominant stretches in all of sports, winning 11 grand slams from 2004 to 2007, and at a total of 13 grand slams, he is only one away from Pete Sampras’ record of 14. There is no doubt that he will cross that threshold and be celebrated by many as the greatest tennis player ever. But after this past year, it is hard to believe Federer will do it with any sort of ease.

Although age always is a great proponent in the decrease in performance, the contribution of cracked confidence is also a major contributor. Federer did it to Sampras, the former king of Wimbledon, back in 2001 by defeating him in the fourth round. The loss exposed the mortality of Pistol Pete, and he would not win another slam until the U.S. Open in 2002. Describing Federer’s situation as this dire would be misleading, however. Federer should win one if not two grand slams next year. But there should no longer be any talks of a calendar grand slam for Federer, or a career one at that. The U.S. Open proved that Federer is still the man to beat in the ATP, but his competitors now know that he certainly is beatable.