Roger Federer and the Mystery of Tennis Mortality

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By Bill Simons

Roger Federer, the man whose balletic power has pleased so many, must have a lot on his mind these days.

The boy who long ago beat No. 1 Pete Sampras is now the elder who this summer suffered back-to-back losses to No. 116 Sergiy Stakhovsky, No. 55 Daniel Brands, and No. 114 Federico Delbonis.

While his age (32) is rising, his ranking (No. 5) is falling, and he’s dropped out of the top four in the standings for the first time in over a decade. He hasn’t collected a Slam in over a year (OMG!), and this year he has won only one minor tournament (Halle). His astounding records of reaching 23 straight Slam semis and 36 straight Slam quarters are now but glorious memories. His twin girls are getting bigger (they’re four) and so, for a while, his racket was getting bigger too, until he temporarily put an end to his experiment with a 98-inch frame. Plus, the man long-renowned as a bastion of health is now being hobbled by back spasms.

Of course, even in what may be his twilight, Federer is truly a formidable wonder. At his best, like in the first set of his Cincinnati quarterfinal against Rafa Nadal, he seems sublime and impressive. Nothing has changed, you tell yourself, from Roger at his Himalayan peak. But then you sense that his confidence (“I am Roger, I rule”) is not the same as before: just a slight, yet pivotal, difference. The intimidation factor that always hovered over his matches is no longer the intangible hammer it once was. Plus, his speed—once so blazing—seems to waver at times, ever so slightly. Alas, you can even speculate about his fabled, desert-tested stamina.

Still, Roger remains Roger: the Greatest of All Time and one of the favorites to win this year’s US Open. Perhaps no other champion, not even Sampras, ever played with such pride (which can dance just on this side of arrogance).

So how is “Our Roger” dealing with the end of the road? Inevitably, he will be confronted with the bite of bothersome questions—such annoying mosquitos. “Roger can you win another Slam?” Or worse yet, “Hey, Federer, when are you going to hang ‘em up?” Will the sublime Swiss master shock the universe and retire this season at the US Open, the year-end Slam that nudges so many into their easy chair? (Think Andy Roddick and Kim Clijsters last year, or before that Andre Agassi, Sampras, Steffi Graf, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, et al.) No, it’s highly doubtful that Roger will depart soon. He so loves his tennis world of combat, adoration, and travel. But, will he soldier on, as he says he wants to, through the ‘16 Rio Olympics?

That road is long, a daunting journey. Certainly, millions worldwide hope Roger plays on. He still delights with his graceful elegance, so easy on the eyes. But make no mistake about it, the inevitable retirement watch, which blossomed long ago, is now in full flower. After all, far more than us humble weekend warriors, Tennis Gods must wrestle with the mystery, misery, and muddles of tennis mortality.

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