Age 30 is a Rubicon for tennis players. Pass through that point of no return, the conventional wisdom has it, and your career can only decline. As anyone who even remotely follows the game knows, Roger Federer reached that milestone last August. Not surprisingly, coverage of the 16-time Slammer has veered away from his game and toward his seemingly inevitable retirement plans. Would he hang it up after the 2012 Olympics, or after one last Wimbledon hurrah? Would he go out in a blaze of fury after another squandered match point? Federer wasn't saying. The only thing we, fans and detractors alike, knew for sure was that this legend's prime was over.
And it is. The triple-major seasons and 81-4 records that he once made look routine aren't coming back. At the same time, though, Federer's recent run of mostly excellent play -- three straight titles to finish 2011, two more last month in Rotterdam and Dubai, and general domination of everyone other than Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, is not the behavior of a man who is contemplating a second career as Mr. Mom anytime soon. After his win in Rotterdam, Federer didn't rule out playing until he's 36, a la Andre Agassi.
I doubt that he'll make it quite that far; how long can you live in airplanes and hotels? But the fact that he would even mention going through the tour grind for six more years should let us know that Federer, as he has been in so many ways in the past, will likely be a special case when it comes to his golden years as a player. In fact, there's little sense so far that he thinks of himself as having entered those years, or exited his prime, at all. If anything, with the help of his coach, Paul Annacone, Federer is playing better, more efficient and complete tennis than he was in his late 20s. All of which fits with an era when tennis breakthroughs are happening later in players' careers than they ever have.
Federer, a pro's pro, has mostly avoided rationalizing his defeats as the product of old age or diminished speed; he hasn't said that he's already won enough and that there's less on the line for him now. His first response to winning his 15th Grand Slam at Wimbledon in 2009 was, essentially, "Don't put me out to pasture yet." It's time for writers and his own fans to follow suit. The retirement questions aren't asked as often these days, but when Federer loses at the majors, many in the sport wonder again if he'll ever get No. 17. It will be a struggle, no doubt, and he may need some luck to break his way. But what may be more notable than his recent defeats at the big events is how close Federer remains to winning them. He hasn't exhibited any of the increased inconsistency that you might expect from an aging champ. Even two years after his last Slam win, he's still an upset of Djokovic or Nadal away from being the favorite at any major he plays.
If Federer hasn't set his sights any lower, or begun to rationalize his losses, there's no reason for his supporters to, either. He's still in the hunt, and I doubt he'd want us to think of him any other way.
Federer already has redefined how dominant a tennis player can be at his mid-20s peak. Now we'll see if he can redefine how well one can play, and how much he can win, after that peak has passed.